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Are Black NBA Coaches Getting Boxed Out?

Chris Schneck

Black coaches aren’t getting a fair shake in the NBA, and everyone seems OK with it, which is exactly how racism survives and flourishes.

Ten years ago people believed that black coaches had shorter tenures. Today, the pendulum of public opinion has swung back with such steadfastness. Now the popular argument alleges that black coaches are getting a fair shake. People seem to think individual black coaches succeed and fail because of their ability to win games, and nothing else.

Last year, 12 NBA teams employed black head coaches. Only 6 teams currently employ black head coaches. This statistical shift won’t move the needle because the racism in the NBA isn’t any different than the racism that smothers the rest of America. Racism can’t be reduced to an individual case study, because it is a pervasive and historic culture that works to the benefit of whites.

Cutting the number of black head coaches isn't news in today's NBA for the same reason that it isn't news that the NYPD fractured the leg of Thabo Sefolosha: sports media police themselves on issues of racism.

Dave Zirin quoted a person at Yahoo Sports, "We censor ourselves. We're risk averse. White columnists feel like they'd get the story wrong and black columnists don't want the responsibility and risk of having to be the ones to write about it. We end up in a state of paralysis."  The same journalistic phenomenon that kept Thabo Sefalosha’s police beating out of the news keeps black coaches scrambling for assistant coaching positions and settling for announcing gigs.

In the most controversial sequence of racially charged hiring and firing in the NBA, the Golden State Warriors fired Mark Jackson (their veteran black head coach) and replaced him with Steve Kerr (a rookie white head coach). Kerr and the Warriors went on to win the 2015 NBA Championship, but that doesn’t absolve the team of racist hiring practices.

Before the Internet freaks out, consider that contemporary racism isn’t necessarily a conscious bias held by bad people. Although racism can occur in individual instances, the Warriors firing Mark Jackson and hiring Steve Kerr isn’t one of those instances. Racism can no longer be reduced to individual prejudices. Instead, racism survives in 2015 as an adaptive system that ensures an unequal distribution of power and resources between racial groups.

The firing of Mark Jackson wasn’t a smoking gun, and there won’t be a smoking gun in the NBA because racism isn’t an individual construction, but a structural one. As long as we think of Racists as Confederate Flag-waving caricatures of an antiquated American past, we cannot end racism. As long as we consider racists as evil instead of inevitable, racism will survive (and thrive) in America and in its Basketball Association. This is how racism works in 2015: the more people that believe that Skin Color Doesn’t Matter, the more powerful racism becomes.

And, the more journalists and academics who deny, understate, or ignore racism, the longer the residue of segregation and slavery will stunt our the black community.

Kavitha Davidson considered the “perceived inequality” between black and white coaches after Adam Silver banished Clippers owner and slumlord developer Donald Sterling’s from the NBA for making racist statements.  And, even though she acknowledges that white coaches have advantages, Davidson maintains that (looking purely at the numbers) the disparity between white and black coaches is a statistical myth.

Looks Can Lie

Avg winning percentages of black and white NBA coaches (last 10 years); Basketball-Reference.com

Dr. Richard Lapchick is the Director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics (TIDES) in Sport, which publishes a Racial and Gender Report Card that assesses NBA hiring practices. TIDES awarded the NBA a grade of A+ for Head Coaching Hiring. 

The same exceptionally low expectations that pervade the schools that serve children of color have affected the 2014 NBA Racial Report Card. TIDES insists on using a grading rubric based on the standard that the racial makeup of a workplace should reflect that of the United States. 

With 40 percent of teams employing a black head coach, the NBA eclipses the 13.2% mark set by the most recent census data. Can the general population be used, however, to evaluate head coach hiring in a workplace where 77% of the players are black? 

Lower Expectations, Less Success

TIDES uses USA population as baseline, not NBA player breakdowns

This ranking becomes more problematic when you consider that of the 12 teams that had chosen to employ black head coaches at the beginning of the 2013-14 NBA season four teams had fired a black coach by the time the 2014 playoffs ended and only 1 additional team hired a black coach.

A staggering lack of growth is even more problematic: ten years ago the NBA employed the exact same number of black head coaches (12) and earned the exact same grade (A+).

How can a racial equality metric not be calibrated for growth? In 2004, we were just 40 years removed from the Civil Rights Act and its prohibition of employment discrimination; the Rooney Rule had been codified a year earlier in the NFL to mandate interviews for minority head coach candidates. The criteria for success must evolve, or the actual success of black coaches will stagnate.  

I can’t imagine the ranking will remain an A for the 2014-15 year: only 6 teams currently employ a black head coach.

I also considered “race-reversals” in coaching. These are instances when teams have transitioned from a coach of one race to a coach of another. (I excluded interim coaches from my analysis.)

During their most recent coaching transition, 12 teams fired a black coach to hire a white one, while only 4 teams fired a white coach to hire a black one. Only the New York Knicks replaced a black coach with another black coach, while 10 teams replaced a white coach with another white coach.

Race Reversals In Last New Hire

Ownership and Management are Trending Away from Black Coaches

Although using data to consider head coach hiring and firing can never capture the totality of the systematic inequality that black coaches encounter. Black coaches won’t get a fair shake until we understand racism as a structural institution that systematically differentiates between white people and people of color. 

Public opinion clings to the belief that we live in a post-racial society, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This delusional belief that Skin Color Doesn’t Matter is one of the most effective ways of perpetuating racism in the NBA, and in America.  

A recent Washington Post analysis of a 2013 Pew Research Center poll supports this argument, finding that about half of whites (49 percent) do not think Blacks are treated less fairy than whites in a variety of areas, including employment. However, only 13 percent of Blacks see no racism.

Sports journalists could step up to the plate and explain the how racism and socialization informs how we watch sports. After all, the subset of the population that clicks on ESPN and tunes into SportsCenter (see: old, white males) is the number one audience that needs some development regarding their mindsets around racial identity. 

Black people in this country have the right to be as mediocre as white people. Not that individual black people will be as excellent, or more excellent, than other white people.
— Ta-Nehisi Coates, on true eqality

Black coaches in the NBA have the right to be excellent, but only white coaches have the right to be mediocre. 

The sports world is ripe with racism, if only the folks that write about sports would open their eyes and have the courage to pick up the pen. Until then, black coaches will have to settle for assistant coaching jobs and broadcasting jobs.