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Coolican: Steve Nash hiring exemplifies sport’s diversity problem

| Monday, September 14, 2020

Hiring a head coach in the NBA is challenging, especially on a team with dynamic superstars with big personalities like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. It is certainly a difficult job for any coach to manage to keep the players content while still maintaining his authority, all while dealing with the tremendous expectations that come with competing for a championship. New Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash will have to manage all that, while at the same time making the adjustment to coaching, as he has never coached at any level. There have been some players who made the jump to head coach that have found tremendous success, such as Steve Kerr, and some major failures, like Jason Kidd. The point of this column isn’t to argue whether or not Nash was the right choice. It is merely to point out that the NBA — and sports as a whole — has a diversity problem when it comes to coaching. 

In 2003, the NFL instituted the Rooney rule, named for Dan Rooney, the former Steelers owner and chairman of the league’s diversity committee. It requires teams to interview minority candidates for head-coaching and senior operations positions. The rule has only been marginally effective; there are currently three black head coaches in the NFL. In college football, the problem is even more striking. There are just 13 black coaches out of 128 Division I programs, even though the majority of student athletes are black.

There was an assortment of candidates who were objectively more qualified than Nash. Jacque Vaughn, the Nets top assistant coach who took over as the interim head coach in March, was considered by many the top candidate. He led the injury-depleted Nets to more success than most expected in the bubble and was the head coach of the Orlando Magic from 2012-2015. Vaughn was reportedly the only other candidate who was interviewed, but there were rumors surrounding former Warriors coach Mark Jackson, and Irving’s former coach Tyronn Lue was also considered. All three of these coaches are black. If the Nets had hired someone who was objectively more qualified, such as Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, or even someone like Jason Kidd, most would not see an issue. It is the fact that they hired Nash while passing over black candidates who had much more experience is what leads many to suggest that this is part of a systemic problem. 

I’m a big fan of Nets general manager Sean Marks, and the turnaround that he has engineered in Brooklyn after the disastrous trade with the Celtics in 2013. Steve Nash may well be the right choice for Brooklyn, and I hope he succeeds. He was a master tactician as a player, and his time as general manager of Team Canada will help from the organizational perspective. If we were solely looking at this hire, it would not be a bad one. However, we must examine it as part of the greater system.

While there are currently five black head coaches in the NBA — and two who were recently fired — black coaches get hired at a lower rate and have trouble getting rehired as a head coach. Lue, who won a championship with Cleveland, has not found a new head coaching position since being fired in 2018. It is comparatively rare for a black head coach to get a second or third chance at a head coaching position, while some white coaches are perpetually rehired, such as Tom Thibodeau, who was just hired as the Knicks head coach, despite being fired from each of his previous two jobs.

It is clear that this is a systemic problem across sports. In the NFL, more than 70% of the players are black, but very few of the coaches and executives are. Football is the only major sport where most of the successful coaches were not NFL players. There is no definitive reason why, but making an effort to hire more former players, who understand the game at a high level, would certainly result in more minority head coaches.

It is easy to point out the problem. It is less simple to find solutions. The Rooney rule was a good starting point, but it has not been very effective. There was a proposal to enhance the rule by giving teams draft pick incentives to hire minority coaches, but that has been put aside. I don’t think incentives or rule changes are what is necessary, although they certainly may help. Most major leagues are aware that there is a problem, and have publicly acknowledged it, but there are no short term solutions. There needs to be a top-down culture change, but that is difficult to achieve and would take years. For now, we must be content with marginal improvements.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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