Amidst Brian Flores’ class-action lawsuit against the NFL and three specific teams alleging racial discrimination in hiring practices, it’s worth looking at the state of diversity in CFL coaching and front-office positions.
The CFL has a strong history of offering opportunities for those overlooked by the NFL, from players to coaches to executives.
The CFL even launched a “Diversity Is Strength” campaign spotlighting trailblazers in 2017. It also hasn’t recently faced anything similar to Flores’ allegations of outright discrimination.
However, there are still questions on if the league is doing enough to ensure diverse candidates continue to get opportunities as coaches and executives.
The league is angling toward attracting a younger audience in part by being accepting of sports betting in Ontario leading up to the April 4 launch. But ensuring the makeup of decision-makers aligns with the country at large is something that can’t be overlooked.
CFL has been ahead of NFL in diversity over time
Historically, the CFL has often been ahead of the NFL in diversity. Willie Wood of the Toronto Argonauts became the CFL’s first Black head coach in 1980, almost a decade before the NFL’s first Black head coach in the modern era.
(That would be Art Shell, who took over as head coach of the then-Los Angeles Raiders in 1989. The NFL’s first Black head coach was player-coach Fritz Pollard in the 1920s. Pollard, along with other Black players, was excluded from the league in 1926.)
The CFL has had quite a few Black head coaches since then. In 2019, the league started the season with four Black head coaches across nine teams, all hired for or elevated to that role ahead of that season: Orlondo Steinauer in Hamilton, Khari Jones in Montreal, Corey Chamblin in Toronto, and DeVone Claybrooks in BC.
CFL also has promoted diversity in front offices
On the executive front, the CFL’s first Black general manager was Roy Shivers, who held that role with the Birmingham Barracudas in 1995, then with the Saskatchewan Roughriders from 1999 through 2006. That’s ahead of the NFL, where the first Black GM was Ozzie Newsome with the Baltimore Ravens in 2002.
The CFL has featured other Black GMs as well, including Ed Hervey (Edmonton Eskimos, 2013-16, and BC Lions, 2017-20) and Kavis Reed (Montreal Alouettes, 2016-19).
The CFL has also had executives from other minority backgrounds, including Norman Kwong (a Canadian of Chinese descent, who served as president and GM of the Calgary Stampeders from 1988-91), Victor Cui (a Canadian of Filipino descent who’s the current president of the Edmonton Elks), and Amar Doman (a Canadian of South Asian descent who’s the current owner of the Lions).
Jeffrey Orridge served as the league’s first Black commissioner from 2015-17. And this kind of history has led to pieces like this feature from Sunni Khalid at The Undefeated in 2016.
Not just about racial diversity in CFL history
The CFL also was early to having a female general manager, with Jo-Anne Polak of the Ottawa Rough Riders serving in that role (as well as as the team’s head of business operations) from 1989-91. The NFL has not hit that mark yet.
And perhaps the leading female candidate to get a NFL GM role at the moment is Philadelphia Eagles’ vice-president of football operations Catherine Raîche, who previously served as Montreal coordinator of football administration (2015-17) and assistant general manager (2017), then as the Toronto director of football administration (2018). So the CFL has shown some past diversity on the gender front as well.
CFL doesn’t get high marks all across the board though
However, there are absolutely diversity issues that remain in the CFL.
Of those four Black head coaches in 2019, only two (Steinauer and Jones) remain in those roles and in the league two seasons later (the CFL did not play in 2020). Claybrooks and Chamblin were fired after one season.
That perhaps bears some further examination. Michael Harriot found in a recent examination of post-Shell NFL data at The Grio that “by every statistical measure, Black coaches in the National Football League have outperformed white coaches,” but “yet, the average tenure for a Black head coach is 4.5 years, more than a full season shorter than the tenure for a white head coach. (5.68 years).”
A CFL study of the post-Wood era with similar methodology might not find as much overperformance. But it would certainly agree on shorter tenures for Black head coaches.
That doesn’t mean that every minority firing is based on race. But it appears many white coaches are retained after losing seasons. Meanwhile, a Black head coach is less likely to keep their job.
Further review: NFL has moved ahead of CFL in female advancement
Despite the success of Polak and Raîche, the CFL now seems to be falling behind the NFL on gender diversity. As JC Abbott wrote in a 2021 3 Down Nation piece, the NFL at that point had eight female coaches to the CFL’s none, with six taking part in the 2021 NFL playoffs.
The BC Lions hired Tanya Walker as a defensive assistant earlier this month, the league’s first full-time female coach. In the front office, Molly Campbell has been the Calgary Stampeders’ director of football administration since 2018. In addition, there are other women in important roles throughout the league as well.
But the NFL features more gender diversity at the moment, especially in coaching positions.
Other CFL representation issues paint a complex picture
There are a few additional things to consider when discussing CFL diversity.
While it’s not an ethnicity, there’s representational value for the league in having Canadian coaches and executives. Still, a majority of the head coaches and GMs are currently American.
A subset of the Canadian discussion is about francophone coaches and GMs. There have been very few over the years, despite football’s huge popularity in Quebec and significant numbers of francophone CFL players.
There’s been very little representation of Indigenous Canadians in CFL coaching or executive roles as well, despite some players from that background and some club efforts to address Canada’s larger truth and reconciliation issues.
And while the league has said the right things since Michael Sam became its first openly gay player in 2015, there doesn’t appear to have been an openly LGBT player, coach, or executive since then.
It’s not that the CFL needs to tick off all of these various backgrounds all the time. But it absolutely should be aware of what backgrounds aren’t highly represented, and what it is missing as a result.
CFL should keep moving forward on diversity issues
Unlike the NFL, the CFL isn’t facing litigation alleging hiring discrimination. But there is perhaps a need for the league to be proactive in embracing coaching and executive diversity.
The Lions’ hire of Walter is a good step on the gender diversity front. Perhaps other teams will make room for talented women in the coaching and executive ranks.
There are some CFL minority coaches and executives in various roles, even with only two current Black head coaches.
But the CFL would do well to make sure candidates from a wide variety of backgrounds receive consideration for openings. A new player mentorship program the league announced Tuesday could be a step in the right direction.
Once hired, candidates from diverse backgrounds need the support everyone else gets (and the time that non-minority coaches often receive).
But to ensure the best future possible, the CFL needs to see “Diversity is strength” as more than just a tagline; it needs to be an ongoing and consistent value.