2023 The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Large Newsroom winner

Black Out

About the Project

When former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores filed a discrimination suit against the National Football League in February, the league’s response was swift: “Diversity is core to everything we do.”

Journalists from The Washington Post would put that claim under the microscope, investigating the league’s hiring and firing practices and their effects on Black coaches two decades after the NFL implemented its famed “Rooney Rule” to improve diversity. The Post built two databases to analyze the performance and career paths of all NFL head coaches since 1990. Examining the data, reporters discovered that the inequity in NFL coaching was not only quantifiable but in many ways getting worse.

Among The Post’s findings: Black coaches faced narrower paths to top jobs than White coaches, were more often fired after successful seasons and were less likely than White coaches to convert successful interim head-coaching positions into full-time jobs.

Through interviews with coaches, agents, players and team and NFL officials, reporters demonstrated the central role that team owners – almost exclusively older, billionaire White men – have played in impeding the paths of Black coaches.

The Post also connected the NFL’s pattern of discrimination to that of corporate America. It analyzed corporate filings and other records and revealed a growing infatuation with the Rooney Rule in boardrooms and at government agencies, even as the diversity-interview requirement was increasingly exposed as toothless.

Finally, The Post examined how unconscious bias inside one of the NFL’s most prominent franchises, the New York Giants, affected hiring decisions, and it revealed how the league’s most powerful owner, Jerry Jones, was on the front lines of one of the darkest chapters of school segregation in the 1950s.

Judges Comments

This has everything: scope, context, background, impact. It is also beautifully designed. Judges remarked that the project was both illuminating and anger-inducing.