There is a long overdue conversation about race happening in the NFL. That conversation will not be a linear one or an easy one, given that the NFL carries the same history of shame as so many American institutions when it comes to its treatment of Black men, from its laughable history of hiring them for coaching and front office jobs to its sometimes subtle, sometimes grimly obvious history of treating players like commodities.
This time, a conversation that has not gotten enough traction appears to be going somewhere. The NFL took the unusual step of actually admitting it was wrong about player protests in 2016 and beyond, and the ferocious advocacy and calls for the NFL to do something from players is driving frank, frankly overdue conversations in the league office and elsewhere.
For things to really change, though, the NFL needs to grapple first and foremost with the way race drives personnel decisions everywhere from front offices to within scouting. Robert Klemko at the Washington Post talked to four NFL GMs about that history and what’s to come, including Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff, and that piece offers a lot of thought-provoking sound bites from men in charge of figuring out which players come to a given team.
Over the years, we’ve written about what we’ll refer to broadly as the Falcons Filter, a perception from fans and media that the team passes on players with character concerns. At its base, the In practice, it’s been unevenly applied, “Character concerns” has always been nebulous, but broadly it’s applied to players who have histories of brushes with the law (like Janoris Jenkins in 2012) or family histories teams find concerning, but it occasionally reveals just how insidious and biased against Black players it really is, given that they disproportionately come from poverty thanks to racism writ large on everything from jobs to housing. Think Nolan Nawrocki’s inexplicably going after Cam Newton’s “fake smile,” or the many reports from scouts over the years that have focused on players having children young as a reason to think they should be avoided.
What is clear is that the Falcons have joined other NFL teams in making lousy decisions based on concerns that seem laughable in hindsight, like passing up on Justin Houston because of a failed drug test and watching him become one of the league’s better pass rushers. They’ve also drafted players who have had impossibly tough lives (like Ra’Shede Hageman) that haven’t worked out, and those that have worked out very well (like Devonta Freeman). It would be difficult to declare definitively that the Falcons have made any of their decisions because of race, but bias pervades the NFL to the extent that it would be impossible to say they didn’t, either.
Dimitroff freely admits that he’s been part of NFL front offices and scouting organizations where ignorance ruled the day. It’s hard not to think about the players who saw their earning potential or draft stock damaged by attitudes that equated Black culture with gangs and crime, something that he alludes to in the quoted passage below.
Dimitroff thought back to how scouts and front offices in the early 1990s equated a player’s tattoos with gang affiliation and how much has changed in the evaluation of family backgrounds, with teams now relying on research instead of outdated stereotypes. “We were so judgmental,” Dimitroff said.
Compare that to how he says he evaluates Black players and their experiences with police today, and how he’s pledging to evaluate those incidents in the future. For a league that has been blasé at best about combating police brutality, there’s a lot of ground to make up in this regard, and a lot of executives around the league who have to get on board with what Dimitroff vaguely alludes to here, that players can have run-ins with the law that they do not precipitate and are that made far worse by police.
“There’s no question I have in the past, and there’s no question I will exponentially more in the future,” the 53-year-old said. “Also, there have been some discussions of police brutality incidents that were incredibly difficult to hear. … I’ve heard a number of accounts that are gut-wrenching, and it stirs emotion because I have not personally had to deal with it. I can only imagine what an African American man in this country faces.”
Dimitroff also said he supports Colin Kaepernick, who has been effectively blackballed from the league since 2017, getting a shot and that he’d be deserving of one. He notably said nothing about the Falcons, a team with three players vying for a backup job, though I suppose injury could change that down the line. Kaepernick’s poorly disguised ban from the NFL is probably coming to an end this season, but it’s anyone’s guess which team will finally, finally sign a player who is on his worst day a top backup in this league, even after three seasons away.
I’d urge you to read Klemko’s entire article because it’s a great piece, and it tells the tale of men who appear to be honestly (if belatedly and perhaps not thoroughly) reckoning with how race has been pervading the way teams think about their scouting for a very, very long time. Time will tell if the NFL emerges from the current moment better, or if they just pay lip service to change the way they have so many times in the past. That in turn will depend on whether owners and team executives like Dimitroff do better or not, and we’ll hope the Falcons are a team leading the charge in that regard.