The NFL and the Malaise of DEI

By From Advocacy to Activism Archives
Cover image for  article: The NFL and the Malaise of DEI

This past week news broke that Brian Flores, former head coach of the Miami Dolphins and current NFL head coach aspirant, was hitting the league with a class-action lawsuit. Flores' suit claims that the NFL was engaged in unfair and discriminatory hiring practices. This is an explosive set of allegations in light of the Colin Kaepernick protest and his subsequent de facto blackballing. Sports -- often heralded as a "level playing field" -- is a good avatar for the broader society. Ultimately this is not specifically about sports. Many Black people reading the details of the Flores lawsuit could recall being in a similar situation. In that sense, what can the Flores lawsuit and the failures of the NFL tell us about the broader DEI malaise?

The Flores lawsuit alleges that he has been a victim of the Rooney Rule. The Rooney rule, instituted in 2003, stipulates that teams must interview at least one diverse candidate for head coaching or senior operation roles. The Rooney Rule has been an absolute disaster. As of the writing of this piece, there is precisely one Black head coach in the NFL. The NFL continues to fail at providing real diversity at the highest levels of sports. Unfortunately, they are not unique to the way many corporations operate in that sense. The NFL's claim that diversity matters -- while also doing nothing meaningful to address their inaction -- encapsulates the crisis of DEI as currently practiced. Those in power, the owners and NFL corporate management, can use PR statements and marketing to obscure their disinterest. This is the exact blueprint practiced in most of corporate America.

DEI initiatives can differ from one organization to another. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach in DEI practices, there must be a fundamental commitment to improve the way organizations operate and exist. DEI is in crisis because it often fails to address power, systemic change, accountability and the business cost of inaction. Under these conditions, the gap between intention and action will only grow wider.

Power -- To be effective, DEI must understand power and how it is wielded within organizations. Despite the hiring of many high-profile DEI professionals in recent years, we have not seen commensurate changes in the way companies operate. Visibility without power doesn't move the dial. Celebrating cultural moments like Black History Month and Juneteenth and failing to put executive power in the hands of DEI professionals won’t cut it. Power is being well resourced with financial and intellectual capital. Power is more than proximity to the CEO. Power is the ability to chart the course of the organization as a critical leader. DEI is not marketing, sloganeering and public relationships. It must consider where the power centers are, formal and informal, within an organization's structure and embed itself.

Systemic Change -- As much as individual progress is significant, DEI must address systemic failures. Complex systems are resistant to change but are malleable enough to absorb even the most well-intentioned individuals. Examing the hierarchal nature of most organizations and replicating and entrenching systemic harms and failures is the only way to dismantle them. Framing racism as a function of individual bad actors or implicit bias obscures white supremacy and how its thinking permeates organizational structure.

Accountability -- In the wake of George Floyd's murder, countless companies made pledges to support diversity. As we near the second anniversary of his murder, very few of those pledges have led to concrete action. There is no C-suite accountability for diversity pledges made in response to DEI initiatives. As long as there is no accountability, we can expect things to remain in stasis. Company A releases a statement about the importance of "insert movement or holiday here" while not doing anything to advance those goals. We can only break this insidious cycle by linking executive promotions, salaries and opportunities to how they meet specific DEI goals. Failure to meet these goals should have direct repercussions to those in power.

Paying the Costs -- DEI is not about litigating the past; it is about the future. The future success of an organization is directly connected to the quality of its people. When you actively endeavor to deny diverse talent an opportunity, it has a long tail cascade effect on your ability to find the right talent. Every organization is rooted in people and their abilities. Failure on DEI is a failure to think about your organization's future and its people. Inaction is an investment in the status quo akin to the misappropriation of funds. Risk is not only the choice between active alternatives. Choosing not to do something is a risk with the high cost of your future obsolescence.

The work done by DEI practitioners and experts often comes at a high emotional and psychological cost. The rate of individual burnout is high, and the ensuing cynicism reflecting the glacial pace of change is corrosive. The way out of this malaise is a clean break from organizational pandering typical of the NFL and others. Confronting racism and demanding power and accountability is the only way forward.

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