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RACIST WHITE MEN RUN THE NFL — THE STEVE WILKS CASE CONFIRMS IT
When the Carolina Panthers rejected a worthier in-house candidate for white retread Frank Reich, it left the league with only two Black head coaches in a diversity debacle worse than deplorable
A hedge-fund manager by trade, David Tepper may or may not have been following the tragic events in Memphis. One state west of his home base in Charlotte, that is where five Black police officers were charged with murder Thursday in the death of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who had a 4-year-old son and liked to skateboard. This isn’t the time — nor is there ever a time — for a white NFL owner to be perceived as flouting the Rooney Rule, which is intended to promote diversity in the league’s coaching ranks.
Yet Tepper is the latest billionaire titan to give the NFL a bad look in what has become, year after year, a blight on racial equality. It was in his power as Carolina Panthers owner to make the rightful hire and proper statement by elevating Steve Wilks, the team’s interim head coach, to the permanent gig. Few men were more impressive on the sidelines this season than Wilks, who is Black. He inherited a 1-4 mess left by Matt Rhule, a $62 million bust, and led the Panthers to a 6-6 finish and a near-playoff berth even after the front office traded prime weapons Christian McCaffrey and Robbie Anderson and dumped quarterback Baker Mayfield. The fans liked Wilks. Opponents praised him. Most importantly, his players were vocal in endorsing his promotion to the top job.
“He gave this team hope,” running back D’Onta Foreman said.
“I love Wilks. That’s my dog,” defensive end Brian Burns said. “I’ll fight for Wilks. … I don’t really want to put race into this. I think he deserves an opportunity because he’s proven what he can do. Wilks just understands. He understands us on a different level.”
Meanwhile, few coaches were less impressive than Frank Reich. He was dismissed in November by the Indianapolis Colts and their impulsive owner, Jim Irsay, but beyond the high-level meddling, Reich’s failings were glaring. Despite his reputation as an offensive mind, he couldn’t connect with veteran quarterback Matt Ryan one season after a late-season collapse with another veteran quarterback, Carson Wentz. At 61, his time in the coaching limelight appeared finished.
Reich is white.
And, naturally, he is the new head coach of the Panthers, challenged by Tepper to maximize a quarterback when he couldn’t do so in Indianapolis. If something reeks, the odor is wafting from the pile of dung inside the NFL offices at 345 Park Avenue. Commissioner Roger Goodell and his deputies are keenly aware that Wilks, fired in 2018 as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals after one season, is suing the league for racial discrimination. Wilks joined another Black coach, Brian Flores, in his well-chronicled lawsuit against the league, which included accusations that Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross had encouraged Flores to tank games for better draft positioning. The claim caused big problems for the league, which suspended Ross until mid-October and fined him $1.5 million for tampering with Tom Brady and Sean Payton. Of his case with Flores, Wilks said in a statement last April: “This lawsuit has shed further important light on a problem we all know exists, but that too few are willing to confront. Black coaches and candidates should have exactly the same ability to become employed, remain employed, as white coaches and candidates. That is currently not the case.”
Think the lawsuit was front and center in Tepper’s mind when he rejected Wilks this week? Think he was pressured from on high not to hire Wilks? Think the NFL is telling Wilks where to shove his lawsuit?
A league that has employed only 24 full-time Black head coaches since 1989 — when about 60 percent of its players are Black — now has only two: Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin and Tampa Bay’s Todd Bowles, after Houston fired Lovie Smith and Carolina passed on Wilks. Miami’s Mike McDaniel describes himself as biracial but not as Black, explaining, “My mom’s white, my dad’s Black. I’ve been extremely proud my whole life.” The Denver Broncos seem to be waiting on San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, who is Black, if he wants the job. But in a league of 32 franchises, the diversity hiring record continues to be abysmal. Reich’s surprise appointment means the Panthers still haven’t hired a full-time Black head coach in their 28 years.
It took only minutes after Reich’s hiring for Wilks’ legal representatives, at Wigdor LLP, to fire back on social media. “We are shocked and disturbed that after the incredible job Coach Wilks did as interim coach, including bringing the team back into Playoff contention and garnering the support of players and fans, that he was passed over for the Head Coach position by David Tepper,” the New York-based firm posted on Twitter. “There is a legitimate race problem in the NFL, and we can assure you that we will have more to say in the coming days.”
If anyone should know the Rooney Rule, it’s Tepper. Before purchasing the Panthers in May 2018, he spent nine years as a five-percent stakeholder in the Pittsburgh Steelers. Dan Rooney, then the Steelers’ owner, was chairman of the league’s Workplace Diversity Committee when the rule was adopted in 2003. On its surface, the Rooney Rule requires all teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head-coaching vacancies. By interviewing Wilks, Tepper can say he acted in good faith. But how many teams talk to Black candidates for no other reason than to fulfill a quota and pacify critics? Tepper, 65, hasn’t had a winning season in his five seasons as owner. Wilks gave him a taste of winning and being competitive.
“None of you guys even expected us to be in this position,” Wilks told the media as his season ended. “So to be able to take a 1-4 team and to be able to get to the doorstep of possibly winning a division and going to the playoffs, I have no regrets whatsoever. To create an identity, to breathe life back into this football team and the respect within this organization that we started to receive throughout the league … no, I don’t have any regrets.”
Nor should he.
The decision might have been more acceptable had the Panthers hired Payton, who has won a Super Bowl as a head coach and is known as one of the sport’s foremost offensive innovators. Reich? The howls of racism are louder than ever. Whether Tepper balked at Payton’s pay demands or didn’t want to compensate division-rival New Orleans with draft picks, he easily could have made this move: Hire Reich as an offensive coach and retain Wilks as head coach.
For some reason, he didn’t want that arrangement.
I think we know why.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.