Good Afternoon, my name is Congresswoman Maxine Waters and let me welcome all of you to Los Angeles, California, as my Congressional District – California’s 43rd Congressional District—prepares to host to Super Bowl 56. I have been a lifelong fan of the NFL not just because I love the sport, but also because my husband, Ambassador Sidney Williams, is an alumnus of the NFL and a member of the 1964 NFL Champions Cleveland Browns. Sidney was introduced to me by his teammate, the great Jim Brown, and I am proud that Sidney and I have enjoyed many happy years of marriage together. I am proud that this game is occurring in my hometown and that our hometown team, the Los Angeles Rams, are playing in this great game. When the Rams square-off against the Cincinnati Bengals, it will be a special moment for me. My pride is not just because the homefield of the Rams is playing host to this game in my Congressional District, but also because of my decades-long relationship with Rams ownership—first with Georgia Frontiere, who was the former owner of the Rams and who asked me to serve on an advisory board, but also with its current owner Stan Kroenke who is a dear friend, and whom I am so proud to congratulate him and the Rams on winning the NFC Championship and wish them all well this Sunday. Go Rams!
I want to thank Larry Lee, Director of Business Development at the Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation and the entire organization, for the invitation to speak at this event today, and I am gratified to know that the Alliance continues to work in honor of Fritz Pollard’s legacy, and support participants in the NFL at every level of their interaction with the league with resources designed to help networking, mentoring, encouraging adoption of rules and practices that foster diversity on NFL teams, educate NFL Team owners and managers regarding the availability of minority candidates for team staff positions, and advocating the hiring and promotion of minority candidates in NFL Team staff.
I also stand here in honor of my dear departed friend, Johnnie Cochran, after whom this awards luncheon is named, and who worked to support the mission of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the results of which can be found in the Rooney Rule, a standard adopted by the NFL at Johnnie’s urging, which has changed the landscape of coaching in the NFL, and which requires any NFL team seeking to fill a coaching vacancy to interview at least one minority candidate. At its best, the Rooney Rule can promote diversity and strengthen the core of any NFL team. At its worst, the Rooney Rule can be used as a cynical tool deployed by teams, in order to feign compliance and give lip service to diversity, while continuing to perpetuate the standards and norms that have regrettably pervaded sports and our society for centuries.
Unfortunately, we meet today against the backdrop of rather stunning allegations put forth by Brian Flores, the former coach of the Miami Dolphins, who alleges that not only was he offered money to throw games, but that when he sought employment after his tenure with the Dolphins ended, teams seeking head coaches engaged in perfunctory rituals. In one especially demeaning and problematic allegation, Mr. Flores, who is Black, claims that he was invited to interview with another NFL franchise not because they were genuinely interested in hiring him, but because it was merely complying with the Rooney Rule. Mr. Flores alleges that in this situation, the team had already secured and intended to hire a white coach, and it was merely putting Mr. Flores through his paces. If true, this is devastating—for not just the teams with whom he was interviewing, but also for the NFL at large.
We all know the recent history the NFL has endured, especially for matters at the intersection of sports and race. The story of Colin Kaepernick as quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers is well known to all in this room and across the country. To protest the relentless disparate treatment of African Americans in our society, Mr. Kaepernick thought it best to take a knee during renditions of our national anthem. He did this not because he hates America, but because he loves it so much that he expects more of it and he used his platform to raise awareness to this cause. He recognized what all of us in this room know: the NFL is not just another sports league. It is the preeminent sports league in our nation—first among equals. Indeed, the Super Bowl is a singular cultural and entertainment event in our country, unmatched by anything else.
In an age where television audiences are increasingly fragmented and our national attention span divided, the Super Bowl is in a class of its own; it routinely draws audiences of over 100 million people each year, and the rights to broadcast the league’s games justifiably cost television networks billions of dollars. The success of the league is a testament to its management, among other things, and no person in this room deserves more singular credit than the league’s commissioner Roger Goodell. Mr. Goodell has been Commissioner of the NFL since 2006 and since that time the league has enjoyed unrivaled success.
I was heartened to see Commissioner Goodell commit to getting to the bottom of not just the game fixing allegations made by Mr. Flores, but to also pledge to increase his efforts to expand the number of owners of color in the NFL, as we all recognize that the owners of the various NFL franchises wield great power in how the day-to-day operation of the league unfolds.
Of the 32 teams in the league, right now there are only two owners of color in the NFL. Before this week, there were only three coaches of color. With recent hires, including Lovie Smith’s hiring by the Houston Texans, that number is now five. Put another way, 93% of the league’s owners are white and 84% of the team’s head coaches are white. This is stark, in a league where 70% of the players are black. The disjunction is not merely a problem in keeping up appearances. Because the same problems that pervade our society are present in its sports leagues, the lack of individuals of color in consequential and leadership positions in the NFL undoubtedly impacts player morale, retention, growth and cultural comprehension.
Which is why I was heartened to see that Commissioner Goodell recognizes this. Separate from his remarks yesterday to consider a reevaluation and possible rework and strengthening of the Rooney Rule, he recognized the responsibility to bring about change “falls on all in the NFL.” He understood that “the NFL has to make change and to ensure it brings diversity deeper into the NFL and to make the NFL an inclusive and diverse organization that allows everyone the opportunity to be successful.” In these remarks, Commissioner Goodell recognizes something all of us have known about sports for a long time—its capacity to precipitate social change. This was true when Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier and was also true when Tony Dungy and Mike Tomlin became the first and second black head coaches, respectively, to win the Super Bowl.
While my colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington and I continue to study this issue from the perspective of the federal government, and while civil rights leaders rightfully continue to make the moral argument for diversity in hiring, it falls on the NFL first and foremost to live up to the legacy of Fritz Pollard and the intention of the Rooney Rule, to ensure this league and game that we celebrate this week here in Los Angeles, looks like its players and the broader American public, so all watching—whether in the stands at SoFi Stadium or at home on Sunday—can have faith that all with the skills to excel in this special sports league are given a chance to showcase their talents. Thank you for the opportunity to speak here today and enjoy the game!