NFL football is predominantly played by African Americans and has been for decades, yet there are very few in positions of power within individual franchises. That's especially true among head coaches and general managers.
49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan believes the underlying, systemic racism that plagues American society has a heavy hand in that. The NFL has implemented requirements in the hiring process to promote minority interviews and opportunities in coaching and other staff positions that have obviously proven unsuccessful.
This belief flies in the face of sentiment expressed Wednesday by Denver head coach and former 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who said the NFL is a true meritocracy that doesn’t see color. Those statements drew immediate ire and Fangio has walked them back, but they shine light on an issue that has prevented true progress in this area.
“They’re trying to address it. I think they’re talking about it,” Shanahan said Thursday in a video conference with 49ers reporters. “I saw what Vic said and I saw him apologize for it. It’s tough because white people don’t feel it. You’re not going to think someone’s racist but, you know what? How the heck are there only four [minority] head coaches out of 32? How are there only two GMs?
“We’re in a predominately -- the majority of our players are black. The fact that there are that few [African Americans in positions of power] is not debatable. I don’t think people openly think that they’re doing it, or that people assort to that, but that’s what the problem is. The number is not debatable, and that is an issue. I think we talk about it a lot and it is something that has to get better.”
The 49ers’ hierarchy has white people at the very top, including owner Jed York, general manager John Lynch and Shanahan.
Lynch has three African Americans in prominent positions in the 49ers personnel department.
The 49ers coaching staff also is diverse. Arab-American defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is in a group of NFL assistants considered more than worthy of a head-coaching gig and was a finalist for the Cleveland Browns job. Special teams coordinator Richard Hightower and assistant head coach/tight ends coach Jon Embree are among eight African-American coaches on staff. Offensive assistant Katie Sowers is one of a few full-time female coaches in the league. Sowers became the first woman and first openly gay coach to coach in the Super Bowl this past season.
“I can only speak for myself, and I try to hire people that I work with that are prepared for [the job],” Shanahan said. “Fortunately, that has worked out well for me. We have a Muslim coordinator. We have a black coordinator. We have a lesbian on our staff. … It’s not to show people that we’re trying to be diverse. It’s because I have been around these people and they are really good at what they do. We can’t win without these people. That’s just how it works out.”
Shanahan agrees that more must be done to create opportunities for minorities atop organizational hierarchies, considering how few currently occupy those posts.
“I don’t know why the numbers aren’t like that, but the numbers are [inadequate],” Shanahan said. “Those are things that, hell yeah, we want to fix. It’s not an easy answer. It’s about continuing to talk. It’s the same thing with society. It’s very similar on different levels. Those numbers don’t lie. That’s what makes it a fact. That’s what white people have to admit.”
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