At every turn, the NFL portrays itself as being deeply committed to racial progress. It has a $250 million social-justice fund. It created and then expanded a rule designed to give candidates of color a shot at leadership roles. The league even had “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a hymn often described as the Black national anthem, performed alongside “The Star-Spangled Banner” during kickoff weekend. But a contrasting picture of how the league really views matters of racial justice keeps coming into clearer focus.
Earlier this week, the former NFL Network reporter Jim Trotter, who is Black, sued the league, accusing it of retaliation. The journalist alleges that the network, which is owned by the NFL, didn’t renew his contract because he publicly challenged Roger Goodell about the league’s poor diversity record during the commissioner’s Super Bowl press conference the past two years.
Trotter’s lengthy filing describes a league that, behind the scenes, regularly shrugs off calls for greater racial equity. Trotter alleges that when he asked Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones at the 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame exhibition game between the Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers why the NFL didn’t have more Black people in positions of power, Jones responded, “If Blacks feel some kind of way, they should buy their own team and hire who they want to hire.” In his legal filing, Trotter said his superiors told him not to report Jones’s comments.
Trotter’s lawsuit also asserts that, during a September 2020 Zoom call that involved several NFL Media newsroom employees, one participant cited remarks that the Buffalo Bills’ owner, Terry Pegula, had made in a previous conversation about some NFL players’ social-justice activism and support for the Black Lives Matter movement. According to Trotter’s account, this colleague heard Pegula say, “If the Black players don’t like it here, they should go back to Africa and see how bad it is.”
Trotter does not name the colleague, nor does he claim to have heard the alleged comment by the Bills owner firsthand. Jones and Pegula have both emphatically denied making the statements attributed to them. Pegula called Trotter’s accusations “absolutely false.” In a statement, Jones said: “Diversity and inclusion are extremely important to me personally and to the NFL. The representation made by Jim Trotter … is simply not accurate.”
In an appearance Wednesday on ESPN’s popular debate show First Take, Goodell minimized Trotter’s accusations.
“They’re allegations,” Goodell said. “Our job is to make sure that they’re factual. These are not new charges. They’re actually a couple of years old. They’ve been looked into. You’ve heard the strong denials. There’s litigation ongoing now.” The commissioner also reaffirmed the league’s commitment to diversity. “We know the importance of progress in diversity and we’re working very hard at it,” he said. “Is progress where we want it to be? No, it’s always slower than you want it to be, but I’m confident we’re moving in the right direction.”
Trotter is one of the most respected reporters covering professional football. If the NFL’s expectation was that Trotter wouldn’t hold the league accountable for its record, then it clearly wasn’t aware of Trotter’s reputation in the media industry. I have known him personally for years and consider him trustworthy. But Trotter’s word is not the only bit of evidence before us. Leaked emails, legal findings, and statistical analyses all point toward the conclusion that, for all the league’s public spin, powerful figures throughout the NFL ignore the contributions and concerns of Black players and coaches when the cameras and microphones are off.
In 2021, the Las Vegas Raiders coach Jon Gruden resigned after emails surfaced in which he made racist, homophobic, and misogynistic statements. In 2022, the former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores filed a lawsuit against the NFL and three teams, claiming that the league was “rife with racism.” Earlier this year, a federal judge allowed his lawsuit to proceed. Flores, now the defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings, alleged that the NFL had frozen Black candidates out of key positions such as head coach, offensive and defensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach, and general manager.
That NFL teams have struggled to hire and retain Black coaches is no secret; the league’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview diverse candidates for major coaching and front-office positions, has yielded little progress in the face of owners’ unwillingness to hire nonwhite head coaches and general managers. When Flores filed his lawsuit, there was only one Black head coach among the NFL’s 32 teams—an embarrassing statistic for a league in which a majority of the players are Black. This season, the NFL has a total of six coaches of color, just three of whom are Black. Trotter himself pointed out last year that nearly half of the league’s teams had never had a Black non-interim head coach. That list includes Jerry Jones’s team, the Cowboys.
NFL owners’ reluctance to put Black men in decision-making roles extends to their choices about which players to draft. Earlier this week, the news website SFGATE reported that Black quarterbacks are being systematically underrated in the NFL draft; those who are chosen measurably outperform white peers who were picked in the same round. What this means in practice is simple: Teams are missing out on wins because they underestimate how well Black quarterbacks can play.
That report is in line with an ugly historical trend: teams’ refusal to consider Black players as quarterbacks out of the racist belief that they lacked the intelligence and leadership ability to perform in the position. In 1923, Fritz Pollard became the first Black man to play quarterback in American professional football. Ten years later, George Preston Marshall, the owner of Washington, D.C.’s football team, instigated a ban on all Black players that lasted through 1945. It took another 23 years for Marlin Briscoe to become the first Black quarterback to start for an NFL team in the modern Super Bowl era.
You would think that in a league as competitive as the NFL, owners and coaches would have an earnest desire to find the best possible play callers, regardless of their race. The private comments allegedly being made by some of the NFL’s most powerful people would help explain why the league seems intent, when any race-related controversy arises, on doing the barest minimum necessary to make the bad publicity go away.
In 2018, a number of owners, players, and league executives met for several hours at the NFL headquarters in New York to discuss how to handle social-justice protests during the national anthem. The New York Times obtained audio from that conversation. During the meeting, Terry Pegula suggested that the NFL needed a Black spokesperson to highlight how the players and owners were working together. As a precedent, he approvingly cited the actor Charlton Heston’s role for many years as “a figurehead” for the National Rifle Association. “For us to have a face, as an African American, at least a face that could be in the media,” Pegula said in the meeting, “we could fall in behind that.”
Pegula’s suggestion that a Black spokesperson could provide cover for a mostly white group of owners who did not want to deal with the backlash to the protests was cringeworthy. It also was sadly unsurprising. Considerable evidence shows that the NFL isn’t truly committed to addressing the issues that Trotter presented in his lawsuit. The league would instead rather cultivate an inclusive public image that doesn’t jibe with what’s really happening in secret.