The NFL has introduced a scheme to tackle race inequality among American football coaches, resulting in a 300 per cent increase in African-American coaches – but could it work for the UK?
A year and a half ago on a sunny day in Cape Town during the first African World Cup, a newly retired football player called Chris Powell pulled me aside and fixed me a look: “When are you going to do a story about the lack of black managers in our national game?”
Mr Powell is black. He’s played at the highest level – winning five caps in his favoured position of left back. But he always knew that when he hung up his boots he wanted to be a manager – and spent years before he retired getting his coaching badges.
That summer Mr Powell was briefly named as caretaker manager of Leicester City. He’s now running Charlton Athletic.
Twenty five per cent of players in Britain are black. Yet of our 92 professional clubs he is one of only two black managers. Neither of these teams are in the top flight.
Football in this country knows it has a problem with race. Twenty years ago, chairman and owners would openly discuss how black players might be fine if left to seek the glory up front, but they didn’t have smarts to play in defence, or in goal. Those attitudes have changed for good – and a lot of great work has been done to ramp down overt racism on the terraces. But the way we hire and fire managers is still stuck in the dark ages.
All of which prompted the football authorities here to look across the pond to that other game called football – to see how they dealt with a very similar problem.
A decade ago in the American National Football League (NFL) a bunch of civil rights lawyers decided to try and tackle the old boy network which decided the leaders of their teams. While 75 per cent of American football players were black, of 32 clubs just two (or three, depending on the year) had black head coaches. They threatened to sue the league – and the league realised it had to act.
Together with the clubs they devised a voluntary hiring code. Whenever a vacancy arose for a head coach or general manager (the two most senior administrative posts) they were required to interview at least one minority applicant.
This agreement was called the “Rooney Rule” after one of the club owners behind it. And the impact has been fundamental – in seven years, a near 300 per cent increase in black head coaches. Now the most senior brains behind eight NFL teams belong to African-American managers.
And in the most unlikely of places across the US, similar ideas are starting to trickle down to their grass roots game. Oregon, on the Pacific North West Coast – one of the whitest states in America – recently went a step further than the NFL and enshrined the Rooney Rule in law. Whenever a senior coaching vacancy comes up at any of its public universities, they have to interview at least one minority applicant. No voluntary code here – it’s written into local legislation.
The man behind the original NFL campaign, an activist lawyer called Cyrus Mehri, was recently invited over here to advise our game what it could learn from the Americans.
“We changed America’s game, and we changed America,” he told me with a wonderfully American smile.
“Change England’s game, and you can change England too.”
But can we? The FA, the Premier League, the Football League, the Professional Footballer’s Association, and the League Managers Association recently invited Mr Mehri over to pick his brains.
And while initially English football made positive noises, there are also significant problems. How to change the very tempo of our football year?
Change England’s game, and you can change England too. Lawyer Cyrus Mehri
The NFL hires and fires during down time, in the summer – we do it in a mid-season panic. When Sunderland got rid of Steve Bruce last month, Martin O’Neill was confirmed just four days later – hardly the model for a thorough search.
While recent research from the PFA found 21 per cent of trainee coaches are black – roughly the same proportion of players – the pool of qualified black managers at the very top level is still small.
Former Arsenal player Paul Davies [pictured right] now trains coaches – he abandoned his dream of coaching players after one too many unanswered applications.
“I say to players: ‘Look, you need the qualifications’.
“Some smile and smirk in my face, as if to say: ‘Paul you want me to go through eight years of getting all the qualification? At the end of it I dont see any opportunity for me to get a decent job in the game. Why should I do that?'”
The Premier League recently said the Rooney Rule wouldn’t work here – dismissing it as a “quota system”. Which of course it isn’t – but they do have a point – a point acknowledged by the man who not only is in a position to do something about it, but a man who has pledged he will.
Greg Clarke is the chairman of the football league. He also used to run a huge telecoms company in South Africa – and saw at first hand how affirmative action can flop if done badly. Promote people too quickly and it really does set the cause back years.
But down in the lower leagues of English Professional football there are plenty of good black coaching candidates coming through.
And, he assured Channel 4 News, by this time next year he and his clubs will have reached some kind of agreement. The priority for many, he said, might well be merely staying solvent, but diversity in football management is something he insists he truly believes in.
Just like Cyrus Mehri, the man who changed American football, Mr Clarke said: “Changing the culture would be good for our game.”