NFL playoffs show CFL is falling behind on diversity in coaching and football operations

Photo courtesy: Cleveland Browns

Diversity is strength.

It’s a motto that the CFL trumpets proudly, as rightly they should.

The league, while still imperfect, has long been ahead of its time — or at least ahead of its competitors — on issues of diversity.

From Normie Kwong to Bernie Custis, Warren Moon to Jo-Anne Polak, the history of the three-down league is filled with trailblazers who broke barriers.

The world, however, is marching forward, and the once revolutionary CFL is under threat of being left behind.

In recent years, and more than ever in the last few months, diversity has become a pressing issue in professional sports. The CFL bears many of the same systemic problems as its major league peers.

Take a look at the league office or the front offices around the league and you will find a population that skews disproportionately white and male. While not long ago the CFL could boast more Black head coaches and general managers than the NFL, the racial make-up of its decision makers has never approached matching the demographic breakdown of its players or of this country.

An assessment of CFL diversity must be uniquely Canadian of course. The appropriate percentages will never match the United States exactly because the demographics here are different.

There is a great deal of nuance to this discussion. Ensuring the hiring of homegrown Canadians on largely American coaching staffs is important and those numbers can skew very quickly in either direction. There’s also the fact that the league is a fraction of the size of the NFL, making for a small sample size.

The issue, however, isn’t that the CFL has no desire to be diverse or that it isn’t making progress, but rather that it has fallen far behind the pace set elsewhere.

For evidence, one needs only look across the border to the NFL playoffs. When Super Wild Card Weekend kicked off last week, a record six female coaches were on the sidelines. With just eight female coaches in the entire league, it was an incredible accomplishment.

Jennifer King in Washington, Cristi Bartlett in Tennesse, Chelsea Romero in Los Angeles, Callie Brownson in Cleveland, and Lori Locust and Maral Javadifar in Tampa Bay all played crucial roles on strong teams. Four of them will be continuing their quest to join Katie Sowers as the only women to coach in a Super Bowl.

Right now, the equivalent still remains a pipe dream in the CFL.

The league that once boasted the first female general manager in North American sports history is well behind the eight ball when it comes to gender equality in 2020. That’s not to say there aren’t talented women in the CFL.

Several women play prominent roles in the non-football side of things, including a handful of female athletic therapists. Molly Campbell has also been Calgary’s director of football administration since 2018.

When it comes to coaching staffs and football operations decision-makers, however, the absence of female talent in the pipeline is stark when compared to the NFL.

The CFL’s best candidate for such a breakthrough, former Montreal assistant GM Catherine Raiche, fled south to become Philadelphia’s football operations coordinator before the 2019 season. She hasn’t been replaced.

While the NFL has been pushing to hire women and provide minority internship opportunities like the one Henry Burris received in Chicago this year, the CFL has made no official effort to inject diversity into the football side of their operations. The reality of their hiring practices means it’s not likely to occur.

The CFL is an old boys club to its core, coaches and general managers are endlessly recycled internally or swapped between teams and truly fresh blood is rare. Even before the dreaded football operations cap slashed salaries and limited numbers, CFL staffs were much smaller than their NFL counterparts.

Now, the average NFL coaching staff features more than 22 individuals, while an entire CFL football operation department (coaches, personnel, equipment, video and scouting) can feature no more than 25.

That means that the opportunities for those individuals without pre-existing pro connections are essentially non-existent. Many of the minority coaches and staffers that the NFL hired fill roles that simply don’t exist in the CFL with teams pushed to the limit by short-staffing.

No team is going to employ an unproven commodity in one of their few valuable spots. While that doesn’t render it impossible for a talented woman or person of colour to ascend in the CFL ranks without having first been a well-regarded player, it does make it more difficult.

The result: the big bad NFL, for all its contemporary and historical problems, is beginning to lap the CFL on these issues. More progressive hiring practices and talent development programs are producing talented football minds from previously under-served demographics down south, while the CFL pays lip service to diversity without any concrete strategy to address existing inequities.

There are plenty of other pressing issues the league must address to ensure its survival, but the league desperately needs a younger fan base that is more diverse in their racial backgrounds and gender. It’s awfully hard to sell yourself to that demographic if they don’t see themselves represented in your league.

A public face of old white men won’t cause a fan base of old white men to bat an eye, but so long as that is your only fan base, the league will die. Nobody wants that.

The good news is this is a league that is fundamentally ingrained with affirmative action. After all, what is the ratio but a way to take a historically under-represented group — within the context of football — and provide them with employment opportunities that might otherwise not arise due to structural hurdles, limited exposure, and bias? The CFL must now attack football operations in a similar way.

In my view, the CFL must amend its football operations cap to mandate the inclusion of internships for members of visible minorities or women in both the front office and coaching staff. The trickle of Black former CFL players into front office roles has done little to change the overwhelming white face of organizations, so these should be aspiring coaches and GMs both with and without CFL ties.

In other words, a genuine injection of new blood that can break through the nepotism and monotony of football hires and create a more diverse CFL down the road. Only then can the CFL evolve and thrive as an industry leader.

There will be many who take issue with this proposal. Those who loudly proclaim that football should be some sort of mythical meritocracy and ignore the fact that this league has succeeded on the backs of thousands of people who deserved opportunities elsewhere but didn’t receive them for one baffling reason or another.

But even the harshest critic should realize that the CFL is slowly losing its reputation as the league of firsts — the place where progress starts whether out of caring, innovation or plain necessity.

The NFL is not yet good enough when it comes to diversity, but they are taking the right steps to improve. The CFL, perhaps for the first time in its history, needs to follow suite.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.