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Pluralistic Ignorance and the Conservative Lag of College Football in its Hiring of Black Head Coaches

This topic has the possibility of being incendiary and, as a result, I must ask that everyone keep their tone civil and their comments related to college football and not politics in general.  Further, this is a nuanced topic, not a black and white one, if you'll pardon the unintended yet nevertheless incisive pun, and thus I expect the same level of discourse in the comments.  Thanks.

This season, Tyrone Willingham, Ron Prince and Sylvester Croom were all either fired or given a nudge out the door at major college football programs.  They all are also black.  At the same time, zero black coaches have been hired at any schools, leaving only three black coaches at the division I level: Randy Shannon at Miami, Kevin Sumlin at Houston, and Turner Gill at Buffalo.  The firings of Willingham, Prince and Croom (for the purposes of this article, we'll just say they were fired) were not necessarily unjustified, especially in the case of Willingham.  But the paucity of black head coaches in division 1 college football is astonishing and, to my mind, sad.  And now comes rampant speculation that Auburn was uneasy about hiring Turner Gill away from Buffalo (where he has turned an unmeasurably moribund program into a bowl team) because of potential backlash from the Tiger faithful due to the race of Turner Gill's wife, who is white.

It's not that I think racism is exclusively to blame.  There are numerous reasons that black head coaches have a hard time getting hired, perhaps most notably the clubby atmosphere of the former head coaches circle from which it seems most head coaching hires are drawn--once you're in the club, getting fired is just a means to the end of getting another job somewhere else, but good luck getting into the club in the first place if you're young, as most black head coaching candidates are.  And insofar as I do think racism is to blame for this lack of black head coaches, it's more the notion that racism exists than the actual existence of racism that is the progenitor of such a sad state of affairs.  Social psychologists call it pluralistic ignorance and I'll explain what I mean by it after the jump.

A comparison of college football to the NFL is apples and oranges, but the very nature of the difference between the apple and the orange is the basis of why one has a greater problem than the other (metaphorically speaking, of course; both apples and oranges are delicious).  NFL teams hire far greater percentages of black head coaches than college football teams.  That is, the higher football league (in terms of level of competition) hires far more black head coaches than the lower league.  So it's clearly not the case that people in a position to evaluate a head coach automatically think black men can't be head coaches.  So are we to conclude that college athletic directors are just more racist than professional owners/GMs?  I certainly doubt that as a general statement.  So what's different about the NFL as opposed to college football?  There seem to be two important factors: (1) an NFL head coach only has to worry about football, and (2) the NFL has the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minority candidates for open head coaching positions.

Factor (1): A college head football coach has numerous duties beyond coaching football, from recruiting to fundraisting to gladhanding alumni and boosters, and this is much of the reason why black assistant coaches rarely become black head coaches in college football.  It's quite a different thing to be in charge of coaching football players and calling football plays than it is to be the face of a college football program, with all that such a position entails.  And because of the pluralistic ignorance of those in charge of hiring head coaches, they seem to have a widespread belief, particularly at southern schools, that a black coach would have a tougher time than a white coach succeeding at the non-football aspects of being a head coach, which would in turn affect the performance of the football team.

Pluralistic ignorance refers to the idea that several members of a cultural group have different ideas than the group at large, but for fear of the repercussions of expressing these dissenting ideas, they all keep quiet such that every dissenting member of the group believes that everyone else in the group but themselves endorses the group norm.  This leads to what Deborah Prentice and Dale Miller call "conservative lag"--in which public norms lag behind private attitudes because everyone believes the group norm is different than it actually is.

Generally speaking, it's not that white athletic directors believe that black coaches wouldn't be able to handle the non-football duties of being a head coach because they believe that black coaches are somehow inferior; rather, it's that they believe this because they also believe that their fans, boosters and alumni are just prejudiced enough to not treat the black coach the same as a white coach.  Are they right or are they operating in a state of pluralistic ignorance, meaning that most people would be on board with the hiring of a black head coach, but everyone assumes that no one else would be?  And even if they are right, should it matter?

Let's take the first question first.  I have no idea if they're right or not; the whole point of pluralistic ignorance is that outwardly expressed opinions can be deceiving.  But athletic directors need to be aware that there's a possibility that their fans, boosters and alumni aren't as racist as the ADs think they are.  And beyond that, I think racism exists far less in sports than it does in general society.  Prejudice might exist to the same extent, but while an overt racist might not want a black family living next door to him, he's more than happy to root for the black running back of his favorite team. I don't mean to condone this behavior, but rather to elucidate the fact that this behavior exists--college football fans are generally pretty willing to look past whatever racist beliefs they hold if it means winning football games.  Would a black head coach get less leeway from boosters, alumni and fans than a white head coach?  Maybe.  But that doesn't mean they're opposed to the hiring of one.

Now on to the second question: even if an AD is right and his "constituents" don't want a black head coach, is that a valid reason for not hiring one?  It's an interesting question.  ADs certainly shouldn't be conduits for the racism of their university's football fans, but if the very hiring of a black football coach would potentially cause that football coach to fail for lack of institutional support, should that be taken into consideration in the hiring process?  If an AD knew 100%, then perhaps yes.  Sad but maybe necessary given the fact that a black coach who is destined to fail for lack of institutional support might do more damage to the notion of a successful black head football coach than not hiring one at all.  But in the end, the conversation, interesting as it is, turns out to be moot because the point of this entire discussion is that no one knows for sure whether fans, boosters and alumni would support a black head coach or not.  Thus, to publicly say, "Yes, I believe that there should be more black head coaches" while simultaneously refusing to take any such qualified black coaches under serious consideration because of something you think you know (but that may actually just be the result of conservative lag) is nothing short of a complete cop out of your supposed principles.

Factor (2): This is where the idea of a "Rooney Rule" for college football would be beneficial.  Without debating the merits of affirmative action (this is certainly not the place for it), I don't think no one is calling for it in hiring policies here, only in the interview process in order to compensate for the usually unconscious (but sometimes conscious) bias of ADs in their coaching searches: if you never interview a black candidate, you're never going to hire one either.  Now, requiring you to seriously interview black candidates does not in turn require you to hire a black head coach, but tangible benefits of the required interview exist.  Most notably, it forces a school to slow down the process and think harder about who might be the best candidate rather than making a beeline for someone already established at a head coaching position (who are usually white).  Do you think Texas A&M might have been better served by being forced to interview someone like Kevin Sumlin, as some fans clamored for, rather than making a beeline towards noted white man (and ruiner of dreams) Mike Sherman?  But they didn't.  They hired Sherman approximately 18 seconds after Franchione resigned.  Luckily for Sumlin, UH scooped him up.  But with all due respect to UH, they are not A&M when it comes to the college football world (even if they have been better than A&M on the field for the past 5 years or so).  An A&M hiring (especially given the university's stereotyped rural culture) would have meant so much more symbolically than a UH hiring (given its status as an urban university with the most diverse campus in the country).

And beyond that, required interviews force universities and their fan bases to accept the possibility of a black head coach.  Again, it's very easy to lament the lack of black head coaches but never fully be comfortable with hiring one for whatever reason.  Serious interviews are the first step towards appearing head coach-like just as "appearing presidential" is a major step towards making voters comfortable with the idea of voting for you in an election.  Familiarity breeds understanding before it eventually moves on to beget contempt.

So what effect did the Rooney Rule have on the NFL?  Well, the number of black head coaches rose from 6% to 22% in 3 years.  This without any impetus whatsoever to hire black coaches, only to interview them.  Coincidence?  Perhaps.  But it's a striking one if it is. (For further information on the Rooney Rule and its effect on the NFL, see this NYU Law Review note on the topic.  Full disclosure: I was in the same class at law school with the author of this note and maybe met him once, maybe not, I'm not sure.  We didn't really know each other.)

There are several issues with a mandatory interview process such as this, and most of them stem from the possibility of disregard for the spirit of the rule.  That is, ADs will treat their mandatory interviews as tokens, and black head coaching candidates will constantly wonder if  they are such tokens.  This happened in the NFL once when the uber-competent Matt Millen decided that he wanted to hire Steve Mariucci, but he still had to interview a black head coaching candidate so he called some up and they all said no because they knew he was just going to hire Mariucci anyway.  The Lions went ahead and hired Mariucci without interviewing a minority candidate and they got fined by the NFL, as they should have, because they violated the spirit of the rule, which is to force teams to give legitimate consideration to minority candidates.  In this way, it's sort of a self-regulating system.

Another problem is that the NCAA has claimed that they likely don't have the authority to enforce such a rule.  I have no idea if that's true, though the administration of college football is certainly decentralized (except when it comes to an athlete borrowing a friend's car, in which case the power is strangely centralized and autocratic), but conferences certainly would have that power.  The NCAA's abdication of authority is no excuse for another entity to not take up the cause.

Conclusion: The take-home point of this article is not really to advocate for a form of the Rooney Rule in college football, though I do think that it would be a step in the right direction to cure this college football ill.  The real purpose of this article is to diagnose that ill in the first place.  And I think that, for the most part, it's not racism on the part of ADs, fans, boosters, alumni, or anyone else.  I think it has a lot to do with the perception on the part of ADs that such racism exists: that black head coaches wouldn't be able to succeed in the non-football aspects that come along with the head coaching job at a university, not because of their inferiority but because of the unwillingness of the team's fans to accept a black coach.  But to use such pluralistic ignorance as an excuse to not even interview, let alone hire, any minorities for a head coaching job is borderline disingenuous and is certainly detrimental to the sport of college football.