GM hires give the NFL a bright spot on diversity, but the work remains
DALLAS (AP) — Ryan Poles knew pretty quickly he was interested in the path that led to his tenure as general manager of the Chicago Bears, while Dallas Cowboys chief of staff Will McClay worked in arena football before scouting beckoned .
Both credit relationships built en route to their places in a promising trend in diversity attitudes for the NFL that had been plagued for years by a poor record of opportunities for minorities in the coaching ranks.
Poles are among six minorities chosen to fill the last 12 general manager vacancies dating back to early 2021, and McClay could have boosted the ratio to over 50%. Instead, he has turned down multiple chances to clinch that title, opting to stay on as vice president of player personnel for Dallas owner, president and GM Jerry Jones.
Relationships are critical to maintaining or expanding the role of minorities in front offices, and the efforts are endless, said C. Keith Harrison, lead author of the annual NFL Diversity and Inclusion Report.
“People say time is money. Trust is money, and people invest in relationships they trust,” said Harrison, professor of sports business at UCF. “We have data that when you network and connect, engage with people who are different from you by gender and race, you have a better chance of being what we call upward mobile.”
McClay says ownership, which is predominantly white in the NFL, plays a role in getting to know promising minority candidates in organizations. McClay was the head coach of a Jones’ Cowboys arena league team before becoming a scout and has been with the club for 20 years.
“Jerry didn’t know me until I was able to spend time with him, talk to him, him knowing how much I knew about football, how much I knew about relationships and trying to pull that together,” McClay said . “He wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t had the opportunity.”
Poles wanted to go into marketing after his release from the Bears, but instead took a position as a research assistant at Boston College, his alma mater. Discussions with guest scouts aroused his interest in human resources.
The 36-year-old Pole credits former Kansas City CEO Scott Pioli with making promoting minority candidates a priority.
“He’s always taken great pride in making sure there’s a pipeline from assistant scouting to area pro scout to directors and then getting it right,” said Poles, who has been with the company for 13 years the Chiefs before he joined the Bears in January.
“So I was fortunate to have someone who was very aware of that and my growth and development was probably faster because only mentors wanted to devote time to developing me as a person and as a human resource and a leader,” Poles said .
Five of the six newly added minority GMs are black: Poles, Washington’s Martin Mayhew, Minnesota’s Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, Atlanta’s Terry Fontenot, and Detroit’s Brad Holmes. Pittsburgh hired Omar Khan, an American Indian, in May. A total of eight of the 32 GMs are minorities.
“It’s a huge step forward that has been made,” said Holmes. “Hopefully this progress continues.”
Fontenot, who was hired by the Falcons in early 2021 after 18 seasons in New Orleans under longtime GM Mickey Loomis, said the goal should be to get to a point where race no longer has to be a factor for head coaches or hiring managers.
At its recent spring conventions in Atlanta, the league conducted a minority coaching and front office accelerator program, which included two staff members from each club.
“The league shouldn’t have to have accelerator programs,” Fontenot said. “We should be able to do this to anyone – not just people of a certain color, race, gender. We should be inclusive in all our processes.”
While Harrison said he’s optimistic that minorities have opportunities in some aspects of management with NFL teams, that feeling doesn’t carry over to head coaching.
In a league where 70% of rosters are black players, five head coaches are in the minority. In 2011 there were eight. Whether a better hiring record at GMs can lead to executive coaching is a tricky question, Harrison and Poles said.
First, it’s difficult to know how much influence a GM will have on an owner, Harrison said, adding that a black GM in charge of hiring a coach may have stronger ties with white candidates.
“It’s hard to simplify,” Harrison said. “There are only 32 teams. So our sample sizes are so small and these positions are so challenging and elite to get. They’re just so competitive.”
Jones of the Cowboys made a similar point, but also said he was not inclined to give up his GM title to keep McClay because he believes the role goes well beyond staff. Jones said he appreciates McClay, who is leading draft for a club that has had a lot of success picking players lately, and doesn’t want to minimize his role.
McClay said he stayed because he believes his voice is important to Jones and he has direct contact with the owner/GM. McClay also said he felt no pressure to take a general manager job elsewhere because he was black.
“I’m a grown man,” said the 55-year-old. “You have to do your job first, so I do my job first to the best of my ability. Then when that opportunity comes along and I’m comfortable with it, that’s what it is.”
The surge in minority GM hiring in the NFL will only matter if it continues, McClay said.
“It’s going to make a big difference if you continue the practices that are being used now because it’s a hot topic,” McClay said. “Rather than reacting to it, planning for it and giving people the opportunity, based on the quality of their work, to do more than say, ‘OK, we did it this time.’ It has to go on because it’s not something you can do right now and say it’s solved.”
AP sports writers Andrew Seligman, Larry Lage and Charles Odum contributed.
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