In the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in May, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell vowed that the league would help address “systemic issues” and later offered an apology to former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began kneeling at gamers during the anthem in 2016 but failed to sign with a team in ensuing seasons.
But the league must take further steps to address the “nepotism and cronyism” that preserves overwhelmingly white and male leadership at its 32 franchises, said Fox Sports host and former linebacker Emmanuel Acho.
In a new interview, Acho told Yahoo Finance that the league continues to fall short of its reputation as a “meritocracy” and that efforts to promote racial justice will remain insufficient until minorities gain greater representation in the league’s top ranks.
“So many people think the NFL is a meritocracy: However hard you work, you'll earn your success. It's not. It's really based off nepotism and cronyism,” says Acho, the author of a new book entitled “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man,” based on a YouTube series by that name that has tallied more than 65 million views since its launch in June.
“Nepotism, you hire your family; and cronyism, you hire your friends,” he adds. “Historically, if the NFL was founded by white men, white men are hiring their family — nepotism, white men. They're hiring their friends — cronyism, white men.”
“So how do you think that the NFL will change if it's historically founded by white men who are looking out for other white men? It won’t,” he says.
At the start of the 2020 season, the league had four minority head coaches and two minority general managers. Meanwhile, the league only has two non-white principal owners: Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan and Buffalo Bills co-owner Kim Pegula, neither of whom are black, according to an evaluation released last year by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports.
NFL efforts to improve diversity in its senior ranks made headlines in 2003, when the league instituted the “Rooney Rule,” which required teams to interview at minimum one minority candidate for each open position at head coach or in senior football operations. As of February, the league had the same number of Black coaches as it did when the rule was implemented, Yahoo Finance reported.
The lack of diversity at top positions across the NFL mirrors a failure to add minority representation to senior ranks across the business landscape, where there will soon be only three black CEOs among Fortune 500 companies, after the announcement that TIAA CEO Roger Ferguson will step down in March.
“That's not a coincidence,” Acho says. “That's just the way in which our world at large works. And the NFL is a reflection of that.”
Acho spoke to Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer in an episode of “Influencers with Andy Serwer,” a weekly interview series with leaders in business, politics, and entertainment.
Though his broadcasting career has focused largely on sports, Acho’s rise to prominence in recent months on the YouTube series “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” includes interviews with guests from all walks of life, including actor Matthew McConaughey, comedian Chelsea Handler, and yes, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. It was during his interview with Acho that Goodell said he wished he’d “listened earlier” to Kaepernick’s reasons for kneeling during the National Anthem.
Eighty-five percent of the 4.2 million in donations made by NFL owners in the recent election cycle went to Republicans, including officials like President Donald Trump who have criticized the racial justice protests undertaken by NFL players, an Open Secrets investigation reported in September. Some of the teams led by such owners made donations to social justice causes in the aftermath of the killing of Floyd, the investigation found.
Acho said he did not consider it “hypocritical” for owners to donate to both Trump and social justice causes, but that he wants to understand why they chose to do so.
“Support who you support,” he says. “You have to figure out your motivation for your support, but I will never tell someone what to do. I will tell them why I do what I do and why I think what I do is right.”
“But I can't criticize or crucify people for supporting who they support,” he says.