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Racial Disparities in NFL Coaching

By Carmen Roxanna (San Diego, CA) – Clarence Shelmon is one of the NFL’s most respected coaches in franchise history. However, after almost four decades, factors beyond his skill and expertise kept him from making history as a Black head coach in America’s National Football League. Shelmon is a native of Bossier City, La., near Dallas, where he took the position as the Cowboys’ running backs coach in 1998; the opportunity being a steppingstone to advance his career toward his ultimate goal of becoming a head coach. Shelmon spent 37 years in coaching, the last twenty-one of which in the NFL for the Dallas Cowboys, Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams and Chargers. Shelmon’s track record boasts mentoring two Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith with the Cowboys and LaDainian Tomlinson with the Chargers: plus Pro-Bowlers running back Chris Warren and fullbacks Lorenzo Neal and John Williams. “When you work hard and you’ve been successful, you think there should be an equitable path for you,” Shelmon said in a recent interview with The Washington Post. “[When] you have success and nothing changes, it can be daunting… mentally, physically and emotionally.”

Art Shell became the first Black head coach of the NFL’s modern history in 1989 when he coached the Los Angeles Raiders. Since then, only twenty-four head coaches were Black out of nearly two hundred head coaches hired. The cost to Black players, who make up 60 percent of the NFL’s labor force, is missing out on valuable mentorship and role models who could help them excel in their careers and lives off the field. “The part that’s missed a lot of times is [that] we needed people like Clarence as Black players — someone we could relate to and talk to,” said LaDainian Tomlinson about his mentor. “It is a hard profession and having someone to be able to guide us through being a professional is sometimes lost. People like him are critical.”

During a five years span from 2007 to 2011 he spent as the Chargers’ offensive coordinator the team won three division titles and finished in the top five in scoring offense each season, yet Shelmon was never even offered an interview for a head coaching job; despite his final nine years during the Rooney Rule era, which places a mandate requiring teams to consider minority candidates for head coaching jobs. According to the Post, Shelton teamed up with former backup quarterback Kevin O’Connell from 2013-2014. O’Connell was only in his late twenties when he retired from football, but by 2015 moved on to coaching as the Cleveland Browns’ quarterback’s coach. By 2019, he was offensive coordinator for Washington and now, at 36, he is head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. Kevin O’Connell’s journey to head coach took 7 years as compared to Shelmon’s NFL coaching tenure, less than half the time and experience. O’Connell is only one example of the many colleagues Shelmon has watched and congratulated on obtaining a title he was never afforded the opportunity to attain. “A part of him died in a sense: the belief in what the NFL was supposed to be about — a meritocracy, a fair chance, that if you work hard enough, you’re going to get what you want,” Tomlinson said. “He deserved that shot [after] all the years, all the production of his players. I could tell that it took a lot out of him.”

However, the cost goes far beyond the unmet hopes of the numerous Black coaches who were denied the chance to coach an NFL team. Given the enormous disparity in pay between a mid-level assistant and a head coach, each missed opportunity could cost a coach millions of dollars in lifetime earnings. According to Shelmon, his starting pay as a running backs coach was in the low six figures, up to $600,000 in his first season as the Chargers’ offensive coordinator, then to $850,000 in his fifth and final season there in 2011. Today, according to league insiders, the wealth gap between head coaches and other positions is even wider, with mid-level assistants making around $500,000 average, coordinators making around $1.5 million and head coaches about $5 million. By those numbers, five years as a coordinator compared to five years as a head coach could cost someone almost $17 million. Shelmon said, “There has to be a fundamental change in somebody’s heart. … Until the owners decide that they’re going to look at a person who looks like me and not see my skin [color] and just say, ‘Hey, this guy can do the job,’ regardless of what he looks like, then it’s not going to change.”

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