by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Here’s the thing about the human heart: You can’t legislate it. You can’t make laws requiring people to like broccoli. You can’t force people into theaters to see “Gigli.”

And it’s the reason the NFL’s minority hiring policy is seriously flawed.

The Detroit Lions know this now, after team president Matt Millen was fined
$200,000 by the league. His crime? He failed to interview a minority candidate before hiring Steve Mariucci, a white man, as his head coach. Under the NFL policy, you must interview at least one minority or face punishment.

“But we tried!” the Lions protested. “We were turned down five different times!”

This is true. Five minority coaching candidates refused to interview. Why? They figured the Lions had already made up their minds — Mariucci — so why waste the trip?

Now, I ask you: Who’s at fault here? The Lions? Should they have gone on to candidate No. 6, or No. 10, or No. 27, until they found a token person to sit down, maybe take a photograph to prove he actually interviewed?

Or is it the fault of the five coaches who refused to even fly in, because they knew they were being disrespected, because they knew they would be listened to the way a pretty girl listens to a loser at a bar, looking at her watch until her ride shows up?

The answer is simple: Neither side is at fault. The policy is at fault.

It’s a halfway step that insults both sides.

Policy, penalty, pretending

Now, how does such a policy come about? It comes about because around 60 percent of the players in the NFL are black, but more than 90 percent of the head coaches are white. It comes about because numerous black assistant coaches have been passed over for head coaching jobs in favor of less-accomplished white men.

It comes about because the teams are owned almost exclusively by older white males. And it comes about because outside activists including Johnnie Cochran, Jesse Jackson and former players such as Kellen Winslow have put pressure on the league, threatening boycotts if the NFL doesn’t make changes.

I spoke with Winslow last week. He was adamant that the Lions’ penalty was deserved.

“They knew the rules, they broke the rules, they have to pay the fine,” he said. “It’s that simple.”

The truth is, there’s nothing simple about it. Were the Lions supposed to pretend they didn’t want Mariucci? Were the minority coaches supposed to pretend Mariucci, an accomplished, deserving coach, wasn’t first in line?

If you keep up that line of thinking, eventually teams may start paying black coaches $100,000 to fly in for an interview. They still won’t hire them. But it’s cheaper than the fine. And the coaches at least pocket some dough.

Is that a better solution?

Coaches have to be heard to be hired

Look. If you insist on changing the racial structure of your business, you do what many companies have done: You mandate a percentage of positions be filled with minorities. Is this a quota? Yes. Might it lead to a business that one day doesn’t need quotas? Yes. Is it a perfect solution? No.

But it’s better than stepping halfway into the pool, demanding interviews but no hires, and forcing people to participate in a charade.

“But this is about giving minority coaches a chance to be heard,” Winslow said.

I agree. But then why didn’t those five minority coaches take that chance? Could they be sending a message of their own? We’re not interested in being heard. We want to be hired.

The truth is, the NFL coaching numbers are not going to change significantly until the NFL culture changes significantly, and that probably won’t happen until some younger and more diverse owners take over the clubs.

In the meantime, there’s no point in filling the well with bad policy. You can drag an owner and a coach to the water, but you can’t make them drink.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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