What Title IX has done for women in all sports, activists are hoping Title VII will do for black coaches in major-college football.
Long frustrated by the sport’s foot-dragging in minority hiring, the Black Coaches Association is seizing upon the 42-year-old civil rights statute as a new tool in the fight to broaden schools’ searches and ultimately the diversity of their head-coaching ranks.
The BCA will encourage individual coaches to file Title VII complaints and, as an organization, is prepared to file on their behalf if “searches appear to be flawed or don’t seem to be moving in an equitable manner,” executive director Floyd Keith says. “I think it’s got some strong possibilities because it’s not that much different than Title IX,” he says. “It gives some teeth to the issue.”
As the young college football season heads into its second week, only 4% of the head coaches in the NCAA’s Division I-A — five of 119 — are black. There were just three a year ago in a sport in which 46% of the players are black and more than half are minorities.
Title VII, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibits both intentional employment discrimination and practices that have the effect of discriminating on the basis of race, religion, sex or national origin. It covers all private employers, state and local governments and public and private educational institutions that employ 15 or more individuals.
While commonly applied to other complaints and suits, the statute has rarely been used in sports.
“The decision-making factors are so subjective,” says Tulane law professor Joel Friedman, author of a textbook on employment discrimination law. ” ‘He just didn’t appeal to me.’ Or, ‘I didn’t think he could be a fundraiser.’ There are a million reasons you could give.
“It’s a very hard thing to prove, which is probably why there hasn’t been litigation.”
Friedman says “less than 25% of plaintiffs win these cases” and adds that a number of them go on to lose appeals.
Opinion split on Title VII
A Washington, D.C., attorney prominent in minority-hiring initiatives in the NFL sees Title VII as a potentially effective tool in efforts to increase the number of black head coaches in major-college football.
“It can be a catalyst for change,” says Cyrus Mehri, who nonetheless is lukewarm to plans to turn to the federal non-discrimination statute — and the courts — as early as this winter.
A founding partner of Mehri & Skalet, PLLC and counsel for the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an advocacy group working to place more minorities in NFL head coaching and front-office jobs, Mehri argues that litigation should be “the last resort.” And he urges colleges and the NCAA to draw up their own version of the NFL’s 4-year-old Rooney Rule, which penalizes teams for not interviewing minorities for head coaching jobs.
Since its adoption, the number of black head coaches in the 32-team league has risen from two to seven.
“What I’m seeing, looking at this from afar, is that the NCAA and individual colleges and conferences have not done enough and they’re going to force the Black Coaches Association and others to look at Title VII as a tool,” Mehri says.
“It just drives me crazy because it’s like the toolbox is right in front of your face. Just pick it up. Use it.”
NCAA President Myles Brand has been vocal on the issue, but the association and individual conferences have shied from any intrusion in personnel decisions on individual campuses. The more than 3,000-member BCA has taken up the cause, among other things instituting an annual hiring report card that analyzes coaching searches conducted by schools in the NCAA’s top-tier Division I-A and in I-AA.
Executive director Floyd Keith, who characterizes the Rooney Rule as impractical for colleges, says the BCA now plans to use Title VII as a new lever in attempts to end a longtime minority-hiring lag.
There are only five blacks among 117 head coaches in I-A today. With last December’s hiring of Ron Prince at Kansas State and Turner Gill at Buffalo, blacks have filled 11 of 176 head-coaching vacancies in I-A since 1996.
“It’s not necessarily that there has to be a smoking gun. You certainly can use statistical evidence,” he says. “What you would have to do is pick out a particular college and say, all right. .. they’ve never hired an African American as a head coach. There’ve been plenty of African American individuals who have applied, and their qualifications are better than (those of) the people who were actually hired. You don’t have to find a memorandum from the athletic director to the hiring committee that says, ‘Our alumni say they’re not going to pay us any money if we ever hire a black coach so don’t hire a black coach.’ ”