Out of control?

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Chip Kelly, Racism and the Culture of the NFL

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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ESPN's Jason Whitlock has weighed in on the "Is Chip Kelly racist?" debate, bringing some much-needed perspective and reason to the issue. No, that's not a sentence I thought I'd ever type, either.

In case you missed it, cornerback Brandon Boykin became the latest former member of the Philadelphia Eagles to suggest that Kelly, entering his third season as head coach, might not get along with black players. After the corner was dealt to the Pittsburgh Steelers Saturday night, he told Comcast SportsNet's Derrick Gunn in a text message that his former coach is "uncomfortable around grown men of our culture." Exactly what Boykin means by "our culture" is unclear, but most interpreted it as a reference to black players, given previous comments by other former Eagles.

In June, months after he was traded to the Buffalo Bills, running back LeSean McCoy told ESPN the Magazine that Kelly "got rid of all the good players. Especially all the good black players." Last year, the Eagles released wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who accused the team of launching a racially-tinged smear campaign against him. The Eagles publicly expressed "concerns" over Jackson's supposed gang affiliations; Jackson himself has stated he's never been in a gang, even if he might have friends who are. "They tried to persecute you from where you come from," a friend asserted.

Also, back in March, Tra Thomas, a former Philadelphia offensive lineman who served on Chip Kelly's coaching staff for two years until his position was eliminated, said players "feel like there is a hint of racism" in Kelly's personnel moves. He extended it to the sideline, noting that only one of seven black assistant coaches have any real power on Kelly's staff. "The other guys are assistants to the assistant coaches," he said.

To Whitlock, whose writing is polarizing even by ESPN standards, the coaching disparity highlights the underlying problem. "The coaches at the bottom end of Kelly's assistant staff -- the coaches with the least amount of power and influence -- are overwhelmingly young and black," Whitlock writes. "When Kelly wants a grown coach's opinion about what to do with his roster, he turns to a group of peers who look, and perhaps think, like he does."

From the outside, that seems like a fair assessment. I've argued that networking bias contributes to the disparity between white and black head coaches in the NBA, too. White men in charge tend to open their social networks mostly to other whites, cutting off black employees from climbing the job ladder. Whitlock argues that Kelly has created an echo-chamber on his coaching staff with people to whom he can relate.

That sure sounds like an affirmation of Boykin's comments. But Whitlock makes a key distinction: According to him, the culture with which Kelly is uncomfortable isn't black culture -- it's NFL culture. Kelly spent more than two decades in college football, where head coaches are essentially generals with nearly unchecked authority. You can, as Whitlock puts it, "get away with hiring a token black assistant or two" in college, and you're unlikely to be challenged by other coaches or administrators -- let alone players, who are still young and impressionable amateurs.

In the NFL, however, players are grown men, with big paychecks and big personalities. They'll push back if they feel they're being treated unfairly, and fostering relationships between players and coaches occurs on a much more level field. Whitlock believes it's that shift in the power dynamic to which Kelly's struggling to adapt -- "not differences of color or race."

The transition from college to the pros can indeed be rocky. But issues of power and authority can't be completely separated from issues of race. McCoy said Kelly's problem is primarily that he "wants total control" -- but McCoy also believes this manifests more with black players than white players. Kelly might not be able to relate to his players, and that may or may not be because they're black, but it still matters that that's how his former players see it, and when they say so we should listen.

And not just to Boykin. Whitlock unfortunately suggests that Boykin's comments about Kelly carry more weight than McCoy's or Thomas's or "childish" Jackson's, because he has a "solid reputation on and off the field," a biracial wife and a journalism degree. It shouldn't take whatever Whitlock views as the ideal black athlete -- one who "weighs his words carefully" -- for us to take accusations of racism seriously. You don't have to be Arthur Ashe to wonder why LeSean McCoy is no longer an Eagle but Riley Cooper still is.

Whether or not Kelly has a race problem, some of his black players think he does, and it's his job to convince them otherwise, to remove any doubt in their minds that their race affects their standing on his team. How his players see him is at least one thing Kelly can control.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net