🏈 Bruce and Roger - A Case Study in Allyship from the NFL 🏈
Updated: Jan 3, 2022
What we can learn about allyship from a Super Bowl-winning coach and the NFL Commissioner?
Halfway through the 2020 NFL season, my six-year-old daughter decided that our bonding time would be watching NFL games.
Two things surprised me about the experience:
A 6-year-old can watch an entire NFL game AND provide fairly entertaining commentary
Bruce Arians and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The more I learned about Arians, the more I liked him. I’ve never been a Tom Brady fan and, as a former¹ Falcons supporter, always viewed the Bucs as an annoying and perpetually weak, divisional opponent. But Arians, specifically how he interacted with the media, his coaches, his team, and Brady, drew me in. When my daughter announced that she would pull for the Bucs in the Super Bowl, I decided to join her (Note: she still wore her custom Titans jersey the entire day before, day of, and during the Super Bowl. She’s Titans for life [and yes, she is very, very hype about Julio]).
The more I dove in, the more I realized that Arians offers a great study in workplace allyship. He has historically operated in complete contrast to the NFL as a whole and certainly the NFL’s commissioner, Roger Goodell. I learned a lot about how we treat others, utilize our positions of influence, and the example we set by watching the two men - so I decided to write about it.
Roger Goodell is the Commissioner of the NFL. Bruce Arians is the head coach of Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the team that won Super Bowl 55. They’re both established, older white guys in public leadership positions, but they offer a stark contrast in what it means to be a workplace ally. Let’s compare their public approaches and see what we can learn.
tl;dr - be more like Arians than Goodell.
A brief history of Bruce Arians
Arians was the first white Virginia Tech football player to share a dorm with a black teammate. His roommate was James Barber - whose sons, Ronde and Tiki, went on to in the NFL.
At 68, Arians is the oldest head coach to win a Super Bowl. It took him seven years as a named Head Coach to win the title (he was an interim Head Coach in 2012), and he has a career Head Coaching record of 72-46-1 (.609). He won the AP’s NFL Coach of the Year award twice in 2012 (his interim season with the Colts) and again in 2014 with the Arizona Cardinals.
Lori Locust and Maral Javadifar, two coaches on Arians’s staff, became the first two female coaches to win a Super Bowl. During the 2020-2021 season, there were eight female coaches total amongst the NFL’s 32 teams.
Arians is the only NFL coach, and first Super Bowl-winning coach, to have black coaches at all key coordinator roles: Todd Bowles (Defense), Byron Leftwich (Offense), Keith Armstrong (Special Teams), and Harold Goodwin (Assistant Head Coach / Run Game Coordinator).
Arians advocates for his staff and frequently gives them all of the credit for the team’s success (it’s a huge part of his reputation, Jimmy Kimmel referenced it while interviewing him after the Super Bowl). For example, Arians had this to say after Leftwich was passed over for open head coaching opportunities at the end of the 2020 regular season:
I was very, very pissed that Byron didn’t at least get an interview this year,” Arians said. “For the job that he’s done . . . I think I get way too much credit and so does Tom Brady for the job that Byron has done. Hopefully next year people will see that he took Jameis Winston [Tampa Bay’s previous quarterback] and broke every single record here, scoring and passing, and now Tom has broken both. He’s done a fantastic job, he’s everything supposedly what people are looking for...
He’s outspoken, clear, and public about his feelings about race, saying this to a Tampa Bay Times reporter in June of 2020:
We all know when we see something that’s horrific and wrong. And the events, especially the last three events [the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor], they’re wrong. They’re murders. Hopefully, justice will be served quickly.
He’s famously close with his players. Larry Fitzgerald, the eleven-time Pro Bowl receiver who played for Arians, bought Arains a car after accidentally injuring him during a post-game celebration (!).
Detecting a theme here? I am.
Arians is exceptionally vocal and does not equivocate in matters involving racial and gender equity. For his entire career, he’s consistently and authentically demonstrated a willingness to use his status to elevate the positions of others who happen to not look like him. Again, this is worth repeating: he’s advocated effectively for decades without fanfare or personal benefit.
And now, Roger Goodell.
Goodell has worked for the NFL or NFL teams since 1982. He started as an intern, worked in PR, then COO, before becoming commissioner in 2006. Surprisingly, he’s only six years younger than Arians.²
He was the commissioner of the NFL throughout the national anthem protest that began in 2016 when 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee. Kaepernick became a free agent after the 2016 season and hasn’t played in the league since, causing some speculation that he’s been blackballed despite his abilities. To Goodell’s credit, he apologized to Kaepernick on Emmanuel Acho’s YouTube show “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man.” He issued a statement regretting the NFL’s initial response to the protest during the summer of 2020. He publicly praised Kaepernick again before the Super Bowl in 2021.
Under Goodell, the NFL launched the Inspire Change initiative to raise awareness of social justice issues in 2020.
Goodell relies on Troy Vincent, the NFL’s EVP of Football Operations, to handle much of the day-to-day work regarding the NFL’s diversity and inclusion strategy. Unfortunately, Vincent’s plans aren’t always viewed positively.
Roger Goodell is frequently a punching bag for critics of the NFL, and he’s admittedly in a tough spot regarding race in particular. His bosses are the owners of the thirty-two NFL teams, a group that includes zero African Americans, two people of color, and lots of old, white billionaires. In a sense, Goodell is the ultimate middle manager; his bosses are largely unassailable while his young, on-field workforce increasingly demands accountability. It’s his job to reconcile the two. That’s not easy.
But it’s no excuse either, particularly given Goodell’s primary shortcoming: inauthenticity.
Taking three years and the Black Lives Matter protest of 2020 to acknowledge Kaepernick’s positive impact is too little too late. Painting “Inspire Change” on the end zones and plastering “End Racism” on the back of helmets is nice but comes across as an empty gesture when you’ve disallowed players from publicly taking a knee to protest racial inequity. Not to mention outsourcing the diversity planning to a lieutenant clarifies it’s not a top priority for you.
Here are some of the top comments from Goodell’s appearance on “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” - they’re fairly illustrative of the skepticism Goodell’s management has cultivated:
What can we learn?
So what can we learn from these two?
We’ll start with Arians. Does anyone doubt his authenticity? I don’t. The man has been doing the work, acting swiftly and clearly, and applying the platitudes that the NFL only recently adopted for decades. Arians lives it. He understands his power and exploits it to further his values. There’s no doubt in my mind that he does it because he believes in equity so sincerely that it’s just his default state, not because anyone told him to.
Further, Arians has acted on his principles with no real, clear, financial, or social incentive to do so. He did it because it was the right thing to do, not because it paid. Arians doesn’t care about equity because someone said he should, there was a quota, he’s afraid of being “canceled,” or he got some “diversity bonus” for hiring an extra black person to his staff. He did the right thing because he believes it’s the right thing to do. He’s intrinsically motivated.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the lesson is to be authentic in your allyship. Supporting and learning from others takes commitment and a willingness to listen and learn because you're not perfect.
If your desire for change isn’t authentic, your efforts to change won’t be either. Taking any kind of meaningful and principled stand against the status quo requires courage, and authenticity is a key prerequisite to brave behavior. Conversely, a lack of authenticity is not a positive forward-looking indicator for successfully bringing about meaningful change, whatever it may be.
I’m pleased that the NFL has finally realized where they fell short regarding racial equity. Admitting you’re wrong is a good first step. I hope Goodell, the owners, and anyone with any position of power in the NFL is authentic in their pursuit of racial equity. If they need any role models, they can find one down in Tampa Bay - he’s the old white guy hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
Jason Reid’s work on this topic is outstanding - you should check it out.
1 That’s right. I said, “former” - I’m tired of getting my hopes crushed. 28-3 still burns.
2 IMHO Goodell looks at least 20 years younger than Arians.