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Why Vic Fangio didn't see the entire picture with his comments

Andrew Mason Avatar
June 3, 2020

DENVER — At some point, most of us are guilty of falling into the intellectual trap in which we assume that our own experiences reflect the overall picture. But most often, our own experiences do not accurately reflect the broader view.

I know because I saw it first-hand.

From 2008-10, I worked for the Carolina Panthers. My experience was first-class. My co-workers were friendly; my boss was intelligent, empathetic and the best teacher I’ve known in this business. Anything I asked for in terms of resources and support, I received.

At my perch on the 400 level of Bank of America Stadium, it was the best work experience I could possibly have. If my wife had been able to get the sort of job she wanted in the Charlotte area, they would have had to drag me out of the organization kicking and screaming based on what I knew and saw at the time.

What I didn’t know then was that elsewhere in the building, sexual harassment and racism filtered down from the owner’s office. On Dec. 17, 2017, the world learned what had only been mentioned in whispers and confidential settlements: that Jerry Richardson, the owner of the Panthers, engaged in a pattern of sexual harassment, racism and inappropriate conduct that would force him out of the NFL via a sale of the club.

Learning this cast my experience in a new light. I would never see my years with the Panthers via the same eyes; after that, I viewed my tenure in Charlotte through the prism of others for whom workdays were riddled with discomfort, fear and vitriol.

Our views can be narrow. Some people’s work experiences are terrific. For others, they are atrocious. And for all you know, two people working side-by-side can emerge with the same divergent pictures.

Which brings us to Vic Fangio.

His coaching career, which now pushes into its fifth decade, is a testament to persistence, intelligence and an ability to reach his players, regardless of their background. When he says the NFL is a “meritocracy,” he’s not just parroting a cliche that has been uttered around the league since time immemorial; he means it regarding how he sees players.

One of his first standouts, linebacker Sam Mills, was dismissed by the rest of the NFL because he was too small. He flourished with Fangio in both New Orleans and Carolina. He did so by overcoming another ilk of stereotype within the sport — that his 5-foot-9 frame would prevent success. In his own way, Mills proved that the “meritocracy” to which football aspires can exist.

Last year, when Fangio was dissatisfied with the play of Denver’s defense early in the season, he shuffled the deck on the defensive line and at inside linebacker after four games. Those changes worked, and the better players for their spots — specifically Alexander Johnson at inside linebacker, Mike Purcell at nose tackle and Shelby Harris moving to defensive end — stayed in the lineup.

The best players played.

And of course, the only Super Bowl participant of which Fangio was a part was guided by Colin Kaepernick.

Fangio has worked in and helped create meritocracies for longer than any of his players have been alive.

“I think our problems in the NFL along those lines are minimal. We’re a league of meritocracy. You earn what you get, you get what you earn,” Fangio said Tuesday.

He continued.

“I don’t see racism at all in the NFL. I don’t see discrimination in the NFL. We live in a great atmosphere. Like I alluded to earlier, we’re lucky. We all live together joined as one for one common goal, and we all intermingle and mix tremendously. If society reflected an NFL team, we’d all be great.”

If society reflected Fangio’s team itself — 53 people from disparate ethnic, geographic and sociopolitical backgrounds working toward a common goal, then, yes. Fangio is spot-on; it would be great.

But the NFL itself?

It has a long way to go. Thirty-one years after Art Shell became the first African-American head coach since Fritz Pollard in the 1920s, the league remains well short of where it needs to be in matters of race and opportunity.

Just because racism and prejudice do not exist for Fangio and how his team handles its work doesn’t mean these ills are not present around the NFL.

Ask minority coaches who continue to be on the outside looking in for opportunities to be coordinators and scouting directors, the positions that lead to head-coach and general manager opportunities.

The Rooney Rule doesn’t exist just for the sake of having another bylaw in the NFL’s bulbous handbook. It has been there since 2003 because few minorities were getting opportunities to even interview for jobs.

And because it was not working as well as the league needed, last month the league discussed some audacious remedies — including giving draft-slot incentives to teams that hire minority coaches or general managers. These weren’t ratified, but the fact that NFL and team officials discussed such ideas shows that there is a festering problem that is not getting any better.

Minorities occupy just four of 32 head-coaching spots and only two of 32 positions with full authority over football operations. Meanwhile, 70 percent of the players are African-American.

The Rooney Rule and programs such the Bill Walsh Minority Coaching Fellowship show the league has taken steps. But changing hearts, minds and latent, subconscious biases takes far longer than the time in which a bylaw or program can be enacted.

That is the broader reality.

And it’s why 2003 Broncos first-round pick George Foster, a former Rams pro scout, responded to a tweet of Fangio’s quote with four words:

“He can’t be serious.”

It’s why former CU Buff Chad Brown, a 15-year NFL veteran who played for some of the league’s most decorated coaches — Hall of Famer Bill Cowher, Mike Holmgren and Bill Belichick among them, Tweeted thusly:

“Yes, the NFL locker room is the place where your merit counts with your teammates. But the hiring of coaches, front office staff and … oh yeah, that guy Colin Kaepernick … so yeah, racism with some folks is so strong it gets put in front of the desire to win.”

Sometimes, we all cannot help but focus on the reality with which we are presented. This can be narrow.

The true, broader reality is often different.

These times are filled with teachable moments for so many. People can listen, learn, and broaden their perspective. Sometimes we have to step outside our view to see that just because harmony exists in the realm you know and helped build, doesn’t mean it exists elsewhere.

All of us can learn — and if we do, together, we will be the better for it.

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