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NFL Coaching & Race

Race and sports along with race and many other topics is a very sensitive topic. My post here grows out of a recent article by Bob Tollison and myself in the Journal of Sports Economics regarding race and NFL coaching. When pro and college leagues racially integrated players, the impact of black players jumped out -- Robinson, Mays, Aaron, and many others in MLB or Russell, Chamberlain, Robertson, and others in college basketball. Bob, Bobby McCormick, and I showed this in a systematic way for MLB and ACC basketball. Within a generation of Jackie Robinson or Larry Doby getting a chance, the competitive value of black players led to full integration across all teams at levels that have remained fairly stable since the late 1960s.

The story with NFL coaches is not so straightforward. While early entrants like Art Shell and Dennis Green and, then, Tony Dungy experienced varying degrees of success and the percentage of black coaches grew, systematic performance advantages as a group over time are hard, if not impossible, to detect. Even at the coordinator level, meaningful differences just don't appear.

Why? After all, simple economics suggests that when a valuable resource is underutilized, it should be more productive than the overutilized resource. Here as some stabs at an answer:

  • A race effect exists but is small enough to be muted statistically when sorting out the indirect effect of coach on winning as opposed to the more direct effect of a player on performance measures like batting; the trouble is that black player impacts can be seen on winning and not just things like slugging percentages ;
  • Black coaches are underutilized and potentially more productive but are being promoted before they have undergone equivalent training to white coaches; such a situation might emerge due to either impediments (bias, poor recruitment) to getting black coaches into entry positions or due to political pressures to promote too soon to head coaches; in the cases of Green and Dungy, they came with extensive experience as either head coach or offensive coordinator; In contrast, Tampa Bay's recently hired new head coach leap-frogged the coordinator position (of course, so did Mike Tomlin and he's done well);
  • Early on, teams underutilized black coaches but the "equilibrium" proportion is a lot lower than popular opinion suggests; we often hear comparisons of the number of black players relative to the number of black coaches; that's not really a relevant comparison; the number of entry level black and white coaches is more germane and is likely to be much closer to general population ratios of blacks and whites; being a marginal pro player or non-pro player may make a person more likely to start coaching at a much earlier age (Fisher, Gruden);

Even with relatively equal performance levels, one can make a purely political, affirmative action argument that more blacks should be hired, at least until there is an obvious disadvantage of hiring black coaches. The difficulty in this strategy is that it is likely to lead to to that very outcome -- hiring in spite of lower qualifications or ability -- which creates its own issues. In the absence of obvious racial differences in performance or explicit limitations or biases, a racially blind policy strikes my own sense of social justice better.