The history of black men’s access to opportunity for obtaining key leadership roles in organizations and companies in the U.S. has been a slow march of progress. One of the more momentous benchmarks in U.S. history that I’ve been able to witness was when Barack Obama (regardless of your political leanings) was elected as the first black man to serve as leader of the free world and President of the United States of America.

To see such a charismatic, eloquent and commanding presence break through, and be elected — by the people of a nation that once viewed his entire race as less than human, no less — was an incredible achievement in and of itself. Although we have much more to do, at the time, I felt that this was a message to the world about how far America has come.

The NFL in particular, embarking on its 100th season of play, is still waging that fight in a league of players that is composed of roughly 70% African Americans. We can look at the all-important position of quarterback as one example. As recently as the 1980’s, African Americans were not believed to have the mental capacity to play the position of quarterback. This notion, of course, has been found wrong, and we now have many successful black quarterbacks in the NFL. As it stands now, seven of the 32 teams in the league have a black quarterback inserted as its expected starter. It did take time.

As far as head coaches go, if it weren’t for the Dolphins hire of former Patriots defensive coordinator, Brian Flores, black coaches would have been shut out from the 8-position hiring process this year. Four of the NFL’s head coaches are men of color, three of which are black men, Ron Rivera of the Carolina Panthers being the only Latino (although we should remember that there is near constant yearly turnover of a good chunk of these positions).

On the corporate side, Ozzie Newsome was the first black GM in NFL history in 2002. Newsome, a former Hall of Fame player, was the key architect in Baltimore’s two super bowl winning teams. Currently, there is only one general manager of an NFL team who is of African American descent: Chris Grier of the Miami Dolphins.

Let’s take a closer look at what is going down in Miami. As mentioned before, Miami also houses 1 of the 3 black coaches in the NFL in Brian Flores.

Chris Grier was named the GM of the Miami Dolphins in 2016, and was given power to oversee all football operations on the last day of 2018. His first head coaching hire in this capacity? Brian Flores, who helped to orchestrate arguably the greatest defensive performance and game plan in Super Bowl history. Flores has been described in NFL circles as intelligent, hard-working, and demanding as a coach… and he has a pretty inspiring story of working his way to the top.

Other notable hires by the Miami Dolphins this offseason have included former Colts and Lions head coach, Jim Caldwell as an assistant head coach and former Raiders and Packers executive and GM, Reggie McKenzie as a senior personnel exec. These are both accomplished and well-respected black leaders in the NFL.

Flores also hired Patrick Graham (whom he worked with in New England) as his defensive coordinator. While none of the major news sites will mention that he is also a black man, it looks like Flores is giving these men opportunities on his staff. It isn’t only black men, as the many other coaches and executives are white, and Chad O’Shea will lead the offense, while Danny Crossman will lead the special teams; but the number of black men in key leadership roles in the front office is obviously notable.

Many times men of color in leadership positions will give other men of color chances even if they don’t fit the stereotype of what we’ve seen NFL trends to look like. This is almost a necessity at this point, as they may not get many other chances elsewhere. That is a somewhat sad reality in many facets of American industry.

Former Tony Dungy Assistants who became Head Coaches

We saw this play out with the highly respected Tony Dungy, the first black coach to win the Super Bowl as well as the first to be elected to the Hall of Fame. He was more than willing to give qualified black coaches a chance to work under him and be mentored. From his coaching tree came an accomplished group of black coaches that includes Herm Edwards, Jim Caldwell, Mike Tomlin, Lezlie Frazer, and Lovie Smith (whom he ended up squaring off against in the aforementioned Super Bowl). All of those coaches have led an NFL team to the playoffs while Smith, Tomlin and Caldwell have all been to Super Bowls.

“I learned the coaching game and etiquette, and was given an opportunity to excel in a space that has traditionally excluded and undervalued men of color.”

–Mike Tomlin in reference to his time on Tony Dungy’s coaching staff

And that’s really what it is, isn’t it?? Many times an opportunity is all that is needed for minority candidates for leadership positions in underrepresented spaces! From there, the results-driven nature of the NFL will weed out the great leaders from the rest. To climb the ladder from coaching intern, to quality control staff, to positional coach, to coordinator, to assistant head coach, to head coach is already an arduous enough task, rife with competitors. But there are some who are willing to give more men of color an opportunity to start on that path and let their own drive and accomplishments take it from there. That’s what a true meritocracy is: You earn based on your performance, not your skin color.

Now, is this all going on to the naïveté of white team owner Stephen Ross? Will he one day wake up in a panic, clutching his chest and suddenly realizing that he is surrounded by strong black voices? 😂 No!! Ross is founder of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, which champions social justice and fights racial discrimination. By the looks of it, Stephen Ross may be invited to the cookout.

General manager and head coach are two positions with a great emphasis on leadership, and management of personalities and strategy. It may not need to be said, or it may need to be: there have been many great black leaders just in our nation’s history alone. To look for one static demographic or look of a leader means you will most likely miss out on potentially great hires that don’t fall under that specific subset of phenotypes. Just ask Sean Payton.

The growing pervasiveness of the black QB may have been the first step, are coach and (to more of an extent) GM the next steppingstones in opportunity for qualified African Americans to prove our worth?

How much of the racial disparities at different positions in football are socialized? Why are there so few black centers? Why are there so few white cornerbacks? Why so few black general managers? Sometimes in life we, as humans, take the paths of least resistance to success, which can further carve out the pre-existing stereotypes and trends.

Once barriers are broken, it is on the individual to not settle for what they are told is their designated lane, but also on corporations to continue not to let outdated stereotypes dictate who opportunities are handed out to.

Either way, it should be fascinating to see how the Miami Dolphins operate over the next 2-3 years. They seem to be tearing it all down, rebuilding from the ground up, and playing the long game. Instant results may not be in the cards… but will their rebuild coincide with the end of the division rival New England Patriots dynasty? Is there Patriot collusion and inside information from Flores’ side?? Many can only hope. Mayyyybe they’ll even make this whole thing come full-circle huh? We’ll see if Ross is really that woke.

In the meantime, men of varying race and background are being given the opportunity to play key roles in the herculean task of getting the Dolphins to where they need to be: out of the mediocrity that has afflicted them in the shadow of Tom Brady for so long. Whether they succeed or fail, owner Stephen Ross has sent a statement to the league and his fans. He has entrusted Chris Grier to call the shots as the leader of his organization. Grier seems to understand that black mentorship is important, and that Miami will be all-hands-on-deck; and that is a good thing for the advancement and competitiveness of the National Football League.