The really remarkable thing about about three CFL teams hiring three black coaches in the span of just over week is how unremarkable it all was.
The decision by the B.C. Lions to hire DeVone Claybrooks, the Argonauts to bring in Corey Chamblin and the Ticats to promote Orlondo Steinauer weren’t lauded as progressive moves in and of themselves. Instead, they were universally praised as smart football decisions, teams and their general managers hiring experienced CFL coaches with extensive track records in the game and a boatload of potential.
Given that general managers often like to go outside the box with these hires to prove how much smarter they are than everybody else – usually with disastrous results – perhaps the fact that all three teams did the intelligent and predictable thing is the most stunning development of all.
But the fallout from the end of the NFL regular season provides an interesting contrast. Five African-American coaches have been fired this season, leaving the league with just two remaining: Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Anthony Lynn of the Los Angeles Chargers, who will play in the wild-card playoff game against Baltimore.
It’s set off another round of discussion around the NFL’s “Rooney Rule” that requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs after a number of high-profile black candidates were consistently passed over. It’s been in place since 2003 and while it’s impact has been a source of debate since its inception, recent developments would indicate the league still has a long way to go.
Meanwhile, the CFL has been at the forefront of racial integration in football for decades. Willie Wood of the Toronto Argonauts became the league’s first black head coach in 1980, nine years before Art Shell would take over the NFL’s Oakland Raiders. In 1995, the Birmingham Barracudas made Roy Shivers the first black general manager in football and the Riders made Shivers and head coach Danny Barrett first black management tandem five years later.
Micheal “Pinball” Clemons, Danny Barrett and Kavis Reed have all held head coaching or upper management roles while Chamblin’s stint with the Argos is his second after spending five years with the Riders.
Anecdotally, many of the black American players I’ve covered over the years have talked about how things feel different in Canada. As I wrote about a couple of years ago after the shooting death of Saskatchewan Roughrider Joe McKnight, the nature of race relations and the spectre of gun violence is very different in the U.S. And that was before Donald Trump took over as president and Colin Kaepernick situation exploded into prominence.
Meanwhile, the CFL has launched its very successful “Diversity Is Strength” campaign to pay tribute to its past and emphasize the multicultural nature of its present. While these types of things have their challenges – chiefly that it can allow issues to be ignored the other 11 months of the year – it’s hard to be critical of something that draws attention to the contributions of people like Bernie Custis or Obby Khan. That Chris Jones’ Neal Hughes t-shirt became a talisman to the Riders’ season was one of those happy coincidences. Hughes is worth reading about, too.
But “Diversity Is Strength” is just mockable catchphrase if you don’t live it and the hiring of Claybrooks, Chamblin and Steinauer was further proof that the CFL makes its decisions based on ability and not on race. That seems like a pretty simple and obvious thing in the opening days of 2019 but it isn’t always, as our neighbours down south are reminding us yet again.