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The NFL: Looking at Diversity & Inclusion Behind the Shield

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The NFL: Looking at Diversity & Inclusion behind the Shield



The National Football League (NFL) was first founded in 1920 as the American Professional Football Association (Oriard, 2019). The NFL adopted its current name in 1922. When the league was formed, it merely consisted of five official teams. Now the NFL has expanded to a total of 32 teams competing for their most prized possession, the Super Bowl that began in 1966 (Oriard, 2019). Currently, the league seems to be showing some efforts in increasing their diversity and assenting to societal demands. However, that was not always the case although the NFL had been integrated since its inception. From 1920 to 1933, only 13 African-American players were contracted to play in the league (Oriard, 2019). Additionally, from 1934 to 1945, there was a “gentleman’s agreement” from George Preston Marshall to keep the NFL all-white (Oriard, 2019). The NFL’s actual integration began in 1946 when the Rams were threatened to lose their lease on their Los Angeles Coliseum if they did not sign two African-American players. Also, it was not until the 1960s that the first generation of African-American NFL star players came about due to NFL scouts “discovering” black colleges (Oriard, 2019).

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The NFL’s history presents a strong connection towards how their diversity efforts are initiated as well as managed. The majority of the owners in the NFL are white and the league is decided to change due to societal pushback and backlash (Ryan, 2018). Consequently, the NFL has silently created a new position in their office: Head of Diversity and Inclusion (Ryan, 2018). In efforts to outweigh the heavy criticism classifying the NFL as racist, sexist, and homophobic, the new position will serve as the forefront force to boost the NFL’s commitment to inclusion and diversity (Ryan, 2018).

Commissioner of the NFL. In 2006, the NFL appointed Roger Goodell as commissioner of the NFL. After graduating with a degree in economics from Jefferson College, Goodell kickstarted his career by interning at the NFL’s headquarters in New York City (Augustyn, 2016). During his time working for the NFL, Goodell has served as an assistant in the league’s public relations office, executive vice president, and chief operating officer. Goodell’s main priority is to protect the integrity of the organization, despite criticisms due to leniency within his punishments (Augustyn, 2016).

Information Gathering

Our data collection consisted of both qualitative and quantitative information. Due to the size of the organization, various means of resources were explored. The information collected includes an encyclopedia, newspaper articles, the official NFL website, a sports business journal, and an article written by a high caliber sports news channel.

The Diversity Policy

The NFL claims to strive for an imperative focus within its culture and organization to work within the bounds of respect, dignity, opportunity, and inclusion. Additionally, diversity has taken part in their League Values and Strategic Constants (NFL, 2019). The policy is enforced due to both ethical and business reasons in attempts to ensure success for the NFL. Their aim is to celebrate society starting within the NFL and hoping that it can transfer and demonstrate externally to society (NFL, 2019). By individually taking ownership of their role in the diversity initiative they look to embrace and support diversity as a whole. Overall the NFL’s policy on diversity is attempting to form a more progressive and socially reflective culture that can support and celebrate individuals at any level (NFL, 2019). Lastly, the only true form of policy within the NFL is that of the “Rooney Rule” which requires teams to provide an interview to at least one person of color for any coaching vacancy (Lombardo, 2019). Since the inception of the Rooney Rule, the policy was expanded to senior football operations positions and required to interview at least one individual from outside of the organization or from the list of the NFL’s Career Development Advisory Panel (Lombardo, 2019).

The Diversity & Inclusion Challenges Still Facing the NFL

Having been in the business for nearly a century— formed in 1920– the National Football League (NFL) has gone through some diversity changes but not very much. The NFL is still homogeneous. Homogeneous is defined as the same kind or alike. Though being quite homogeneous the NFL has embraced some diversity and inclusion but not very much. According to the NFL, diversity is critically important to the NFL. It is a cultural and organizational imperative along with dignity, respect, inclusion and opportunity. Accordingly, diversity has been incorporated into the League Values and Strategic Constants and is therefore an integral element in establishing the league’s strategic initiatives. Diversity is the right thing to do both for moral and ethical reasons as well as for the long-term business success of the league. To speak effectively to the broad society externally, the NFL must represent and celebrate a broad society internally. “We must overcome the existing cynicism by making progress in both the culture and composition of the NFL organization.” (NFL, 2019)

Despite all the diversity and inclusion in the NFL, for the past few decades critics have spoken out about the way black players historically have been prevented from playing quarterback in the NFL. People have said that it was a racial and disenfranchising move on the NFL behalf. However, statistics show that times are changing – albeit too slowly. And although the league’s percentage of African-American signal-callers increased from 18 % to only 19 % during a 14-year span– analyzed by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida– the emergence of young superstars such as Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Dak Prescott and others have proved over and over again that those anachronistic ideas about leadership and intellect are no longer applicable. (McManus, 2017) In fact, the only and first only African-American quarterback inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame is Warren Moon. (McManus, 2017).

Furthermore, the NFL also has a staggeringly low number of minority coaches. According to ESPN senior writer Mike Sando, the NFL has implemented the Rooney Rule and counseled team owners to address the diversity and inclusion of minority coaches in the NFL. A majority of the minorities in the NFL are frustrated about the lack of minorities head coaches in the league. For example, 80 of the NFL’s current 85 offensive coordinators, quarterback coaches and offensive quality control coaches are white and 23 of 32 defensive coordinators are white. (Sando, 2016). In addition, many minorities have been hired as position coaches only for running backs and the defensive secondary, while whites fill up all the upwardly mobile slots. Researchers at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business conducted a study and concluded teams consistently hire minorities for lower positions carrying a very remote chance of ascending to a head coaching positon in the NFL.

Moreover, the NFL has not given former minority players or coaches fair consideration for vacant general manager positions or team ownership. According to the latest report from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida, 26 of the league’s 32 teams have a white general manager. Among majority owners there are only two people of color: Shahid Khan, a Pakistani-born billionaire who bought the Jacksonville Jaguars, in 2012, and Kim Pegula, an Asian-American woman, who bought the Buffalo Bills with husband Terry in 2014. As of now there are only two African-American coaches in the NFL: Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh (Steelers) and Anthony Lynn in Los Angeles (Chargers). In 2018, five African-American coaches were fired and replaced with white coaches. What is truly unfortunate for diversity is that the NFL now only has two minority General Managers, one of whom is retiring soon.

With the NFL being as diverse as it is as far as the player representation on the field, it would be logical that the league fully embrace inclusion of minority general managers, owners, quarterbacks, more so now than at any point in its 99-year history. “Diversity is just ‘the world.’ Its different cultures, different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different religions, genders, sexual orientation, shapes, sizes. That is the world, but we call it ‘diversity’ because there is this one type that has always been accepted in the media, and it’s finally starting to change.” (Macdonald, 2019).

Outwardly the NFL may appear as a robustly rich organization with copious amounts of diversity within the playing ranks, but upon closer introspection of team and league management the NFL may not be as fully committed to D&I as it is maintaining the illusion for its passionate fan base. Since 2016 there have been instances of overt bias witnessed by many fans in stadiums throughout the United States demonstrating that the league may not be as diverse and inclusive as it claims to be.

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The watershed moment of overt racism and bias was when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided in 2016 to protest against racial discrimination and police violence against African-Americans by taking to one knee during the national anthem (Sonnad, N., 2018). Other players around the league joined Kaepernick in their protest against racial injustice. The NFL took a laissez-faire approach; however that changed when U.S. President Donald Trump commented that he would have fired Kaepernick had the president been the team’s owner or league commissioner due to his view that Kaepernick’s actions were unpatriotic and un-American. According to Oliver Staley, “Rather than alienating sponsors and older fans—U.S. President Donald Trump among them—the NFL is instead cracking down on its players’ individuality (Staley, O., 2018). Additionally, Staley stated: “Pro football will have successfully put down the players’ modest rebellion, but will have made itself that much more repressive in doing so” (Staley, O., 2018).

Protecting the Shield

The NFL has been outspoken in protecting “the shield” (its logo and brand). Attempting numerous times to speak and forwarding our D & I interview questions in advance for an HR representative’s answers at the Miami Dolphins provided the following response from Jason Jenkins, SVP, Communications & Community Affairs: “Good afternoon. Discussed internally and this project is something that would be best answered at the league level. Please let me know if you need a contact at the NFL (J. Jenkins, Personal Communication, June 14, 2019). Jenkins provided us with Brian McCarthy, the NFL’s VP of Communications (J. Jenkins, Personal Communication, June 19, 2019). Forwarded our questions in the hopes to expedite a response from McCarthy and a follow-up call have yet to elicit a response the league.

Recommended Diversity & Inclusion Plan

Factoring the NFL’s current diversity and inclusion policies, its lack of a D & I leadership, charges of racism and sexism over the last two years, and its guarded secrecy, were our group to advise and consult the NFL on D & I, we would recommend the following approach to help the league manage its diversity and inclusion issues.

Phase I Need: Authentic Leadership Commitment– Though the NFL has a diversity council in place, the league has yet to fill this titular position advertised for over 10 months.

Phase I Consulting Recommendation: The immediate hire of a Head of Diversity and Inclusion must have significant corporate and community relations experience to bridge the divide between ownership, the players & coaches, and its fan base. Timeline: Immediately (within 90 days).

Phase II Need: Clear Organizational Communication and Expansive External Relations– Though there is abundant disclosure on its website regarding its commitment to diversity, diversity mission statement, and D & I promotion policies, without consistent communication to the media and their NFL communities, the only messages that are delivered is after a scandal has broken.

Phase II Consulting Recommendation: We recommend that during Super Bowl week at the annual State of the League address by Commissioner Goodell that the commissioner dedicate a portion of his speech to recap the proactive D & I steps taken by the league and to address what the NFL has done to address any D & I scandals that occurred in the past season. An additional recommendation is for the NFL to host town hall meetings each offseason in the cities where there is a team and have a dialogue with media and the cities’ constituency regarding its efforts to make the league more diverse and inclusive. Timeline: Four town hall meetings for four consecutive years, totaling eight-team communities per year, so that each community benefits directly from the discourse.

Phase III Need: Establish a Diversity Mentoring Program– The NFL must improve its diversity regarding team administrative leadership and ownership, as only two of the league’s 32 teams have minority ownership.

Phase III Consulting Recommendation 1: The league is to promote the leading officer from their Women’s Interactive Network to take the lead in communicating career opportunities for females throughout different college campuses nationwide. This can be a multi-year program by hosting a symposium followed by a career fair at a local university, where there are NFL franchises. Afterwards, regionally. Timeline: Promotion (30 days); Program- Annually for the next five years.

Phase III Consulting Recommendation 2: The NFL shall establish a mentoring program where current players in the off-season or, when their playing careers are over, may explore team, league management and/or ownership opportunities. Since the majority of management throughout the league are white men, they must be included and have buy-in to the D & I initiative in establishing a mentoring program, too (Cañas, K., Sondak, H., p. 21, 2014). Timeline: We recommend that this occur annually for a minimum of three years.


  • Augustyn, A. (2019). Roger Goodell. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. Retrieved from //
  • Cañas, K. A., & Sondak, H. (2014). Opportunities and challenges of workplace diversity (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle Ridge, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall
  • Fischer-Baum, R., Gordon, A., & Haisley, B. (2014, May 10). Which Words Are Used To Describe White And Black NFL Prospects? Retrieved June 3, 2019, from //
  • Lombardo, J. (2019, January 28). NFL holds steady in latest diversity report. Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal. Retreived from //
  • Macdonald, D. (2019, June 6). Diversity Team Quotes. Retrieved from ://
  • McManus, J. R. (2017, April 26). The racial Divide. Retrieved from //
  • Oriard, M. (2019). Gridiron football. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. Retrieved from //
  • Ryan, C. (2018, August 1). Seeking to quell complaints, NFL quietly creates ‘Head of Diversity and Inclusion’ position. Washington Examiner. Retrieved from //
  • National Football League (2019). Commitment to diversity. Retrieved from //
  •  National Football League. (2019, June 8). NFL. Retrieved from LEAGUE EMPLOYMENT: //
  • Sando, E. S. (2016, July 19). Rooney Rule in reverse: Minority coaching hires have stalled. Retrieved from ESPN: //…
  • Sonad, N. (2018, May 24). The NFL’s racial divide, in one chart. Retrieved June 3, 2019, from //, Quartz at Work
  • Staley, O., & Staley, O. (2018, May 23). The NFL’s new policy on the national anthem is a rejection of the modern workplace. Retrieved June 22, 2019, from //, Quartz at Work

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