Why are there are so few black coaches in college football?

The stadium scene.
Dec. 26 2008 7:27 AM

Blackballed

Why are there are so few black coaches in college football?

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Perhaps the numbers we're seeing in college football have to do with the economic model of the good ol' boy booster club. College basketball, while a big deal for the top schools, isn't the money magnet that football is. And in pro football, profit is tied to advertising, network ratings, and therefore performance, so irrational bias is punished not only on the field but also in terms of cash flow. In a similar vein, economic historians have argued that racial discrimination in professional baseball was finally eliminated, not by litigation or the civil rights movement, but by television. Television raised the monetary rewards of fielding a winning team by opening baseball to national markets and national advertising—this made it too costly for owners to indulge their own racism and the racism of established players and local fans.

College football's critics are particularly incensed about the fact that while there are only six black coaches in major college football, 50 percent of the athletes are black. In fact, the Black Coaches and Administrators has opened a national hotline offering legal advice to disappointed black applicants for NCAA coaching positions; for the BCA, the next step could be helping one of those applicants file a race discrimination lawsuit. (In the week since the BCA announced the hotline, two black coaches have been hired—Ron English at Eastern Michigan and Mike Haywood at Miami of Ohio.)

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But the disparity between black coaches and black athletes doesn't prove discrimination. Coaches aren't hired from the pool of football players—many, indeed most, athletes aren't qualified for or aren't interested in coaching. In an early case involving statistical evidence of discrimination, the Supreme Court confronted a similar issue: A school district accused of discriminatory hiring tried to defend its very small percentage of black teachers by pointing out that the percentage of black students in the district was equally miniscule. But the court rejected this comparison as irrelevant: Teachers aren't drawn from the same pool as students. The correct comparison was between the percentage of black teachers in the school district and the percentage of black qualified and interested potential teachers in the local labor market.

Similarly, to smoke out possible discrimination, we'd need to compare the percentage of black coaches with the percentage of blacks among qualified and interested potential coaches. We can get some idea about this pool by looking at the coordinators and assistant coaches at Football Bowl Division schools. One recent survey showed that 12.2 percent of coordinators were black and 30.6 percent of assistant coaches were black. So the disparity between coordinators or assistant coaches and head coaches is not as stark as between coaches and athletes, but it's still significant. Of course, the head coach position is far more important for fundraising. Maybe the black coordinators and assistant coaches can make the right moves on the field but aren't learning to make the right moves with the boosters. If that's the case, and if blacks aren't being mentored, nurtured, and prepared to take the helm when they're working in entry-level assistant positions, then the problem isn't really the hiring decisions for head coaching positions—it's much more diffuse, and much harder to zero in on.

Even if it's not proof of racial discrimination, the disparity between the percentage of black athletes and of black coaches is relevant, at least symbolically. A sport that's dominated by white coaches and black athletes—white overseers giving orders to young black bucks who do the physical work—can bear an uncomfortable resemblance to a plantation. (And, fair or not, this resemblance is just a tiny bit greater when the overseers give their orders with Southern accents and the school is located in the former Confederacy—sorry, Auburn.) Add to that what many consider to be the exploitation of so-called "student athletes," most of whom won't make the pros and don't receive a decent education because they need to spend most of their time practicing or playing ball. To the critics, we have an overwhelmingly white university administration and booster base that are happy to benefit from these black kids' efforts in their athletic primes but won't support even the best of them as coaches later in their careers. To be sure, none of this proves that Turner Gill was turned down by Auburn because of his race. But it does suggest that college football is in need of reform that goes much deeper than getting rid of the Bowl Championship Series.

Richard Thompson Ford teaches at Stanford Law School. His latest books are Rights Gone Wrong: How Law Corrupts the Struggle for Equality and Universal Rights Down to Earth.