Black out

Dennis Green, the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, does not need statistics to tell him that the National Football League is a whites-only club when it comes to hiring head coaches. Green is one of only three black head coaches in the entire 30-team league, even though more than 60 percent of the 1,500 players in the NFL are African-American. He sits on the NFL's powerful Competition Committee and has participated in recent meetings with commissioner Paul Tagliabue to discuss the inequities in teams' hiring practices. And, he says, until he was hired by the Vikings in 1992, he had been "ghost-chasing" for years--trying to get that elusive head-coaching job that disappeared like a puff of smoke every time he reached for it.

But Green, when pressed, will not say the NFL is racist--not even one week after he saw his dear friend Sherman Lewis get cheated out of a head-coaching job he more than deserved, this time by our very own Jerry Jones. The word--racist--is not in Green's vocabulary. He prefers to say he deals with discrimination.

"My thing is open-hiring practices, equal access, and equal opportunity," he says from his Wayzata, Minnesota, home. "Presidents, general managers, owners--they all need to do a better job in offering equal opportunity. If a guy can play for your team, he sure as hell can coach it."

Dennis Green is among the few in the NFL raising hell about the inequities in hiring. He's one of the rare men in the league willing to go on the record, willing to lend his reputation to a fight that has gone a thousand rounds with no decision.

And he's the only head coach in the NFL with balls enough to tell the world that former San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers assistant coach Sherman Lewis--four-time Super Bowl winner Sherman Lewis--got screwed when Jones named the very white Chan Gailey to coach the Dallas Cowboys for the next five years.

"When I say Sherman Lewis is one hell of a football coach, I'm not saying he's going to help you win," Green says. "He's going to bring some of that gold dust he had in San Francisco and Green Bay. He's a special guy who gets along with players, who's tough as hell and smart as hell and doesn't fuck around."

No, Dennis Green doesn't need a report to tell him what he already knows. The NFL discriminates. The NFL is racist.

But if you don't take Green's word for it, if Jerry Jones' actions two weeks ago don't speak loud enough and clear enough, then consider the news from the experts. This week, the Center for the Study of Sport in Society releases the 1997 Racial Report Card, which reveals--as it does every year--that the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, and the NFL continue to keep "people of color" out of the front office, off the sidelines, away from the decision-making process. One more time, the Northeastern University-based center concludes that qualified black men are being disqualified from head-coaching positions they are within their rights to expect, if not demand.

"Other than players, head coaches and big league managers hold the most visible positions in pro sports," the report states. "This has always seemed to be the most logical place for Blacks and Latinos to get ahead...Many athletes of all colors and ethnic backgrounds have shared this dream. It is far more likely to become a reality if you are white."

The facts are there in white and white. But, again, you don't need a study to tell you that. Just take a trip to Valley Ranch and meet Chan Gailey, the 19th consecutive white man hired to coach an NFL team.

Chan Gailey--who looks like Jimmy Johnson, sounds like Barry Switzer (without the profanity), feels a hell of a lot like Jerry Jones. Chan Gailey--a 46-year-old good ol' boy from the South, a real Georgia peach with the Dan Reeves stamp of approval, a God-fearin' Christian with more twang than a Willie Nelson song. Chan Gailey--a white man who, until four days before he was hired, wasn't even a blip on anyone's head-coaching radar. Chan Gailey--whom Jerry Jones hadn't even met till the week he was named the fourth head coach in the history of the Dallas Cowboys.

That guy.
Gailey might well turn out to be a successful head coach; only time, as they say, will tell. But do not be fooled by Jones' proclamation at the February 12 press conference that "Chan is the man." Indeed, he's no better than a dozen other candidates out there, especially one named Sherman Lewis.

Consider Gailey's resume: While he's no NFL neophyte like Barry Switzer or, for that matter, Jimmy Johnson, Gailey was first brought to Jones' attention by Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Reeves--the very man who pushed Gailey out the door after Reeves' Denver Broncos went 5-11 in 1990 with Gailey as assistant coach. From 1991 to '92, Gailey coached the Birmingham Fire of the World League, which is barely even pro football; after that, Gailey went to Samford University, which no one outside of Samford University has ever heard of.  

He then went to Pittsburgh, where he led the Steelers to the Super Bowl in 1995--and lost to...who was that?...oh, yeah, the Dallas Cowboys. Two years later, his team got crushed one more time by the Cowboys and then lost to Denver in the AFC Championship chiefly because Gailey decided to throw the ball away rather than run it down the Broncos' throats. Gailey has been to four Super Bowls. He has not won one.

Then consider Lewis' credentials, which he has been racking up for 28 years. For the past 15 years, he has directed the West Coast offense for the San Francisco 49ers, where he helped win three Super Bowl victories as running backs and wide receivers coach, before taking home yet another Lombardi Trophy with the Green Bay Packers in 1997, where he is currently offensive coordinator under Mike Holmgren. He mentored Jon Gruden, a 34-year-old white man hired weeks ago as a head coach by the Oakland Raiders even though Gruden's Philadelphia Eagles didn't even make the playoffs. The 55-year-old Lewis is admired, respected, celebrated, adored by black and white players and, most important, his coaching peers.

And he is still an assistant, sitting in the coaches' box instead of strolling the sidelines.

When Jones hired Gailey over Lewis, he only reinforced the image of the NFL as a racist organization that continues to treat black assistant coaches like second-class citizens. At the end of the 1996 season, not one single black assistant coach was even interviewed for a head-coaching position; this year, the baby-faced Gruden got the job in Oakland though he's no more qualified for the job than anyone who watches a season's worth of ball on TV.

Jones' actions may or may not be the result of conscious racism; Jerry would, of course, deny such accusations. (Jones was "out of pocket," according to Cowboys PR director Rich Dalrymple, and couldn't be reached for comment.)

But his failure to hire the black candidate--the far more qualified candidate--underscores the institutionalized racism that permeates the NFL, which continually furthers the careers of mediocre white coaches while burying those of talented black men who have proven they know how to win in the NFL. It's an indictment of the white men who run the sport, executives who hire only what they know and whom they know--themselves.

"Racism has got to be a factor on some of those teams, because they reflect the racial hiring practice of corporate America, and we don't have a lot of black leaders in corporate America, to say the least," says Richard Lapchick, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society. "But in a lot of cases, it's the old-boys network, which is a manifestation of the inheritance of institutionalized racism--at best. At worst, it's institutionalized racism in and of itself. There's a pattern at play in sports and society where we hire who we know. When the we are white men, most of the people we know in the business we're in look like us, and that's who we're going to turn to."

Though there have always been black assistants passed over for the top jobs--in 1985, the St. Louis Cardinals took former Cowboys assistant Gene Stallings over Johnny Roland, a Super Bowl-winning assistant with the Chicago Bears--Lewis is only the most visible of the group of black assistant coaches repeatedly passed over for head-coaching positions. Add to the list such invisible contenders as Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Emmitt Thomas, who won two Super Bowls with the Washington Redskins; Washington receivers coach Terry Robiskie; and Art Shell, who posted a 56-41 record as head coach of the Oakland Raiders during his five-year tenure there.

Lewis, however, has become the focal point for this discussion, which doesn't take place often enough in the world of pro football, where well enough is often left alone. Players and other assistant coaches often point to Lewis as a victim of racism: Until this year, he had never even been interviewed for a head-coaching job, though his record warranted more than a passing glance.

During the Super Bowl last January, Lewis received considerable press from the sportswriters huddled in San Diego. They took down his every word, recorded his every exasperated sigh as he recounted, once more, his frustrations with being passed over for every head-coaching job that came down the pike.  

"I can't make anybody give me a job," he told reporters. "I can get frustrated, but I can't get mad. There's nobody to be mad at."

He also added, "I would never stand up and call somebody a racist."
He doesn't have to.
Indeed, Jones didn't even talk to Lewis until January 23--three days after The New York Times reported that a handful of black assistant coaches were considering bringing a class-action discrimination lawsuit against the NFL. According to the story, the coaches--none of whom were named--were furious over the fact that when 11 jobs came open after the 1996 season, not a single job went to a black coach. As an added slap in the face, at the end of last season, the Buffalo Bills hired Wade Phillips, the Indianapolis Colts signed on Jim Mora, and the Oakland Raiders hired Joe Bugel--all white men, all with far less impressive credentials than Lewis.

Lewis' California-based agent, Bob Lamonte (who also represents Packers head coach Mike Holmgren), told The Times that "there are a very strong group of black assistants livid over the fact Sherman never got an interview. They are still livid." Tagliabue, who had met with nine black assistants in March and commissioned a study of the league's hiring practices, freaked. After all, on January 4, he had written in The Times that "all of us in football--professional and college--must do better in identifying top coaching talent from a diverse, growing pool, including African-Americans."

By late January, Lewis got his interview with Jerry Jones--two, in fact, plus a stay at Jones' Highland Park mansion.

Then what did Jones do?
He offered the job to former UCLA coach Terry Donahue, a white man with absolutely no NFL experience who had sat out the past two seasons working CBS-TV's college-football TV broadcasts. When Donahue balked at the low-ball salary Jones was throwing his way, Jerry then turned around and brought in "mystery candidate" Chan Gailey, offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers--a team the lowly Cowboys had crushed at the beginning of the season.

Lewis, once thought to be Jones' second choice after Donahue--who was really no choice at all, especially since so many of the veterans were terrified at the prospect of being led by yet another college coach--was left out to dry. Again.

When he was hired on February 12, Gailey was quickly embraced by the local sports media. Fellow Americus, Georgia, native Dan Reeves--the man who recommended Gailey to Jones--was selling Gailey's virtues to every radio sports-talk show that would have him. Michael Irvin and Troy Aikman were paraded before the media to sing the praises of the man whose team they always used to beat. The Sunday after Gailey's hiring, The Dallas Morning News ran an allegedly in-depth interview with Jones detailing the hiring process--and not once was Lewis' name even mentioned in beat writer Jean-Jacques Taylor's puff piece.

Meanwhile, Sherman Lewis once more became the invisible man. According to Green Bay Packers public relations man Jeff Blumb, Lewis decided to disappear for a while. The ordeal had left him tired, and he wanted to take a long vacation away from the world of football. He could not be reached for comment, nor could his agent Lamonte, but it's doubtful Lewis would speak ill of Jones anyway.

"Part of his difficulty is, if he speaks out, it's going to hurt his chances more," Lapchick says. "He's got to have other people speak out for him. That's the last thing an owner wants, to hire someone who might speak to the press about racial disparities once he's hired. He's in a very tough position."

Green agrees, adding that "once it's done, it's too late."
The Vikings coach says that "Sherman Lewis is not going to tell you how he feels once it's done. It has to be done beforehand. The commissioner is trying to tell people our credibility is on the line. We have to be careful. We think guys are good enough to play, but they're not good enough to be coach. That's a bad signal."

Aside from Green's comments to the Dallas Observer, there has been a telling silence from those who are in a position to come to Lewis' defense. When contacted by the Observer, Buccaneers head coach Tony Dungy refused to comment. A PR person at Tampa Bay explained that "Coach Dungy won't be able to discuss the Sherman Lewis situation." (To be fair, Dungy has been outspoken on the issue in the past, though he has decided to clam up in the days since the Lewis non-hire.) Eagles coach Ray Rhodes didn't return calls either.

The sports press has been equally silent. A computer search of major U.S. newspapers reveals that only a handful of columnists took issue with Jones' decision to hire Gailey over Lewis; articles appeared in the New York Daily News, The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. But the list ends there, and the Morning News once more rewrites history while the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the local TV stations ignore it altogether.  

It has been reported that in the end, Jones didn't hire Lewis because he was "too accommodating" in interviews and Jones didn't want a "yes" man--as if! At least, that was the excuse ESPN's football reporter Chris Mortensen offered in his wrap-up that appeared last week on the sports channel's Web site. Yet, Mortensen added, such an explanation is likely just a "weak alibi and ultimately an insult to Lewis, who is obviously qualified."

Which is supposed to be, in the end, all that matters. Sherman Lewis is qualified to be the Dallas Cowboys' head coach--more so than Chan Gailey or Terry Donahue or any other white man Jerry Jones wants to hire today or tomorrow.

Perhaps the most telling comment comes, again, from Green. When asked whether black assistants were surprised when Lewis was passed over yet again, Green says, simply, no. Of course not.

"A lot of guys weren't surprised at all," he says. "A lot of guys felt they [the Cowboys] weren't going to do it anyway. When you're discouraged, that glass is always half-empty; it's never half-full. You know that the system's not going to be fair and that they're not going to take the very best man. If they were, hands down it's Sherman Lewis."

Some day, some smart team owner will figure that out. And when it happens, pray to God Sherman Lewis beats the hell out of the Dallas Cowboys.

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