Politics, Moderate



A Thought-Provoking Discussion on Civil Rights and Sports

Jessica Johnson on

The last Martin Luther King Jr. commemorative event that I attended this month was a civil rights and sports program hosted by The Ohio State University's College of Education and Human Ecology. Former Buckeye safety Malcolm Jenkins, who retired from the NFL last year after 13 seasons in the league, was the speaker for a fireside chat with the audience. One of the many issues Jenkins addressed was the social justice work that is still needed in sports and the diligent commitment required for it. In addition to Jenkins, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith and the new Chicago Bears president and CEO Kevin Warren formed a panel moderated by The Athletic's Nicole Auerbach. One of the primary points of emphasis in their roundtable was the need for diversity and inclusion in senior-level sports administrative positions so that up-and-coming young professionals will have more role models and mentors.

After the panel shared their insightful views from their professional experiences, I had the opportunity to do a quick interview with Dave Zirin, the sports editor of The Nation, who writes about the intersection of politics and race in our sporting culture. Zirin was the scheduled afternoon speaker for a discussion on his 2022 documentary "Behind the Shield: The Power and Politics of the NFL," which critically examines pro football's historical influence on the nation's ideals of patriotism and manhood. I wanted to get Zirin's take on the lack of African American head coaches in the NFL for my upcoming presentation on this subject. I prefaced my questions with a recap of the 2022 season, where there were only three Black head coaches in the NFL: the Houston Texans' Lovie Smith, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Mike Tomlin and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Todd Bowles. Miami Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel is biracial and does not identify solely as Black. Smith was fired by the Texans at the beginning of January after just one year.

Zirin expressed that he thought this small number of NFL African American coaches was a "profound indictment of the ownership structure in the National Football League and a profound indictment of the Rooney Rule, which was supposed to correct these kinds of inequities." He went on to say that the Rooney Rule, which was implemented in 2003 as a requirement for teams to interview minority candidates for coaching vacancies, still has not solved the problem of the lack of diversity among coaches. Zirin strongly emphasized that this is a glaring disproportion since the majority of NFL players are Black. I then asked Zirin a question that I think some of my students would pose to him regarding the Rooney Rule: "Why should we still have to talk about race and still have this conservation when it comes to hiring practices?" Zirin answered: "Because the best qualified people simply aren't getting interviewed. We need these practices because history is real, racism is real, inequity is real. No one is saying who has to be hired. We're saying there needs to be equality of opportunity, which simply does not exist."

In "Behind the Shield," Zirin includes a small segment on former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, who sued the NFL and his former team along with the Denver Broncos and the New York Giants, alleging racist hiring practices. Flores claimed that the Giants only granted him an interview to comply with the Rooney Rule. He is currently on the Steelers' staff as a senior defensive assistant and linebackers coach and is interviewing for the Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator position. Last February, Flores stated, "God has gifted me with a special talent to coach the game of football, but the need for change is bigger than my personal goals." In thinking about Flores' case as it relates to Ohio State's MLK Day theme and civil rights focus, I believe Dr. King would quote Proverbs 18:16: "A man's gift maketh room for him." Flores' lawsuit against the NFL has not prevented him from pursuing other coaching openings and showcasing his God-given abilities, and it is admirable that he was willing to risk his career to take a stand.


Civil rights and the intersection of sports will definitely be an ongoing dialogue in the media and the academy at institutions like Ohio State. There is still much to learn, analyze and contemplate as former athletes like Jenkins and influential journalists like Zirin continue to be leaders in this discussion. And hopefully, with this discussion we can find creative ways to fight against systemic inequities using sports as a platform.


Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University's Lima campus. Email her at smojc.jj@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JjSmojc. To find out more about Jessica Johnson and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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