Racial segregation and job promotion among coaches in American college football

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Image: Jonathan Steffens via Flicker (CC BY-NC)

by Jacob C. Day

As we enter February, the coaching carousel of job changes that accompanies the end of every college football season is winding down. All head coaching vacancies at the highest level of college football—NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS)—have been filled, but many assistant coaches are still searching for new jobs, better jobs, or simply any job that will keep them employed in the profession for another year.

According to my research, the jobs these assistant coaches land may have serious career ramifications, particularly if they are African American.

Sociological research has consistently documented the segregation of black and white workers into different occupations and jobs as well as its impact on racial inequality in promotions and career success. However, a lack of racial diversity in high status occupations across the U.S. labor market has made it difficult to systematically compare the career outcomes of black and white managers who occupy the same types of jobs.

College Football Coaches: A Unique Managerial/Professional Occupation

The college football coaching profession is a unique context in which to examine whether job-level racial segregation influences career advancement. It is a managerial/professional occupation with a relatively large number of racial minorities.

During the 2014 college football season (the latest season in which the NCAA has data) African American coaches accounted for 31% of all FBS college football coaches. During the same year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only 9% of workers in managerial and professional occupations nationwide were African American.

Based on these numbers, it appears as if African Americans have been particularly successful in moving up the college football coaching ladder – and, in important ways, they have. However, African American coaches are underrepresented at the FBS level compared to their representation among the largest pool of potential coaches—football athletes—where African Americans account for 52%.

Furthermore, similar to broader labor market contexts, research consistently shows that the “stacking” or segregation among football athletes into central and non-central positions is reproduced once these athletes enter the coaching profession. According to classic sociology of sport research on stacking, central positions (e.g. quarterback, offensive line, linebacker, and defensive backs) generally have more leadership responsibility and direct control over the outcome of competition than non-central positions (e.g. running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, and defensive line).

Black coaches are also underrepresented among upper management in college football, accounting for 12% of the Offensive and Defensive Coordinators (“divisional manager” positions) and 9% of the Head Coaches (“CEO” positions) at the FBS level.

Transitions to the Top of the Coaching Profession

With data on the career histories of 323 college football coaches at the FBS level during the 2009 season, my research investigated whether occupying a central or non-central coaching position in any given season increased the chances of moving into the executive levels of the profession (i.e., Offensive and Defensive Coordinator and Head Coaching positions) the following season.

The results confirmed that coaches who were in charge of central positions were more likely to move into executive positions the following season and that black and white coaches’ segregation into non-central and central positions accounts for some of the racial differences in promotions. But what happens when black and white coaches are in charge of the same position?

The findings show that non-central positions are more harmful, and central positions are less beneficial, for black coaches compared with white coaches.

Not only are black coaches less likely than whites to get promoted from non-central positions, if they do happen to land a central coaching job, it is less likely to improve their chances of promotion. Perhaps more troubling, black coaches in charge of central positions are only slightly more likely to move into an executive position than white coaches in charge of non-central positions. In other words, a black linebackers coach is expected to have worse promotion potential than a white linebackers coach and similar promotion potential to a white defensive line coach.

Explaining Racial Differences in Promotions

My study was unable to investigate the specific reasons why black and white coaches in the same jobs were promoted at different rates. However, prior research on coaches and workers in other occupations point to some potential explanations.

One explanation, known as the “particularistic mobility thesis,” suggests that performance indicators in high-level and non-routine jobs are often vague and difficult to objectively measure. For example, what makes for a good quarterbacks coach? You can imagine a host of factors that head coaches and athletic directors look for in assessing potential coaches to fill out their coaching staffs: their technical knowledge of the quarterback position; their ability to relate to the players they will coach; and their work effort and competitive drive are all plausible examples.

Some of these characteristics would be easier than others to measure objectively. A coach’s technical knowledge of the quarterback position might be inferred from prior experience playing and coaching the quarterback position. But it is more difficult to objectively measure a coach’s ability to relate to players or their work effort and competitive drive.

As a result, hiring and promotion decisions are based, in part, on the subjective perceptions of upper-management. These perceptions are susceptible to preexisting stereotypes, out-group bias and in-group favoritism, and other informal processes (e.g. network-based social closure) that operate to limit African Americans in their career progression relative to whites.

For example, another study of college football coaches found evidence that people have different perceptions of black and white coaches’ skills and abilities by studying press releases announcing coaching hires. White coaches were more likely to be described in terms of their technical abilities and experience, whereas black coaches were more likely to be described in terms of the ability to recruit and relate to players.

These results mirror studies of the subjective perceptions of black and white football athletes, where differences emerge even among those who play the same position (e.g. “running quarterback” vs. “smart quarterback” or “field general”).

The foregoing suggests that preconceived stereotypes of black and white coaches’ abilities that are tied to the different positions they predominantly play and coach might explain why there are systematic differences in the career trajectories and promotion chances for black and white coaches.

If so, then the results of my recent study do not lend themselves to simple policy solutions for addressing persistent underrepresentation of minority football coaches at the highest level of the college football coaching profession – or for addressing segregation and underrepresentation of minority employees at the top of other occupational ladders. Any effective policy will likely have to address and overcome the informal nature of hiring and promotion within these labor markets.

The NCAA seems to tacitly recognize this with multiple programs for addressing diversity that emphasize informal networking, professional socialization, and mentorship. They know what a growing body of research on the careers of college and professional football coaches is showing: Coaches do not simply move up the career ladder by doing their job well, they move up when athletic directors and existing executive coaches perceive that they are capable and ready.

Jacob C. Day is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology & Criminology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. This article is based on the paper “Transitions to the Top: Race, Segregation, and Promotions to Executive Positions in the College Football Coaching Profession,” in Work and Occupations.

1 comment
  1. This is interesting, well-done research on the whole. However, I’m not sure defensive back should be labeled as a “central position” in football. Spatially, defensive back is the counterpart to the wide receiver position (which Day labeled as peripheral) and is positioned at the edges of playing fields. Defensive backs and safeties make relatively low wages in professional football and are predominantly black, which also suggests peripheral status. Perhaps one could argue that defensive backs have high outcome control in today’s pass-oriented game, but in such a case, wide receivers should be classified as “central” as well. At the very least, I’m not comfortable with lumping defensive backs with quarterbacks in terms of occupational status or spatial positioning.

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