Keith Alexander's passing away was tragic on so many levels. Only 53 years of age and in his second season at Macclesfield.
What is eye catching is Alexander was only the second black manager throughout the professional English league, all 92 clubs. Paul Ince, the MK Dons manager is the other one. There are no black managers in the top flight at present. Ironically, Ince was the first who broke that glass ceiling when he was made manager of Blackburn but was removed six months into his hiring in December 2008 after Rovers fell to Man Utd.
For a sport that has so many black players playing professionally for years, the discrepancy in managerial representation is staggering. Alexander's death is a pointed reminder that in this area there exists a serious lacunae. Is the resistance to hiring black managers structural? An implicit assumption when it comes to planning and execution of the sport - leave it to whites?
England has come some ways from the days of the sort of overt racism exemplified by Ron Noades, Crystal Palace's chairman who as recently as 1991 had this to say about blacks on British TV.
" The problem with black players, " explained Noades, whose heavily black team had just finished third in the country, " is they have great pace, great athletes. love to play with the ball in front of them...... when it's behind them it's chaos. I don't think many of them can read the game. When you're getting into the mid-winter you need a few of the had white men to carry the athletic black players through. " (From Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski)
Emlyn Hughes, the Liverpool legend was fond of pointing to the "lack of bottle" in the black players. The absence of fortitude and the lack of discipline were the most glaring omissions of virtue as many immigrants from the Caribbean arriving in the 1970s took to the game.
For a contrast, one has to look across the pond.
An analogue of Noades "I don't think many of them can read the game" could arguably be found in the NFL. In the surfeit of running backs and wide receivers there was a singular lack of black quarterbacks. It was long felt that blacks for their undoubted athletic prowess lacked the decision making skills for the sports most important position.
Warren Moon of the Houston Oilers was one of the few exceptions. Moon, a fine QB with a great arm was named to nine Pro Bowls and kept company at the top with Dan Marino breaking a number of passing records. He was at the vanguard of a transformation as his success broke long held taboos. We now have the occasional remark from unreconstructed bigots like Rush Limbaugh denigrating black athletes but the reality is that Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb, Duante Culpepper, Michael Vick, Aaron Brooks, and Byron Leftwich are now an accepted part of the changed complexion of the game.
A similar close mindedness operated within the NFL in their hiring black managers. It was so pervasive that clubs deciding between similarly qualified managerial candidates invariably chose whites while overlooking black assistants with stellar records who had spent years in their ranks. With the top job closed off, these assistants fatalistically accepted that they would play smaller roles in managing special teams or the running backs. Even becoming the offensive co-ordinator was a huge accomplishment.
Things changed when Tony Dungy who had spent years as an assistant eventually became the Tampa Bay Buccaneers manager in 1995, three years after his former mentor Dennis Green was made Minnesota Viking manager. The two brought success to their clubs culminating in Dungy becoming the first black to win the 2007 Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts.
Long time assistant Jim Caldwell immediately took over as manager after Dungy's retirement in 2009. He created a record with most wins as a rookie in a regular season and led them to this year's Super Bowl. Caldwell was a tad less successful compared to Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who in 2008 became the youngest Super Bowl winning coach when he beat the Seattle Seahawks.
Tomlin is the first black coach of the Steelers in their 75 year existence. His ascension is proof that the Rooney Rule is working.
The rule was the brainchild of Dan Rooney, the Steelers owner who worked to redress the imbalance of a league virtually bereft of blacks in the coaching upper echelons compared to their overwhelming presence on the field. The rule states that the hiring club has to at least interview one minority candidate when filling a head coaching position or be fined.
"There were some people who said, 'I want to hire whoever I want to hire. You can't be telling us who to hire.' That is your decision," Rooney said. "But we say you must give an opportunity to an African-American or a minority.
"That sort of took hold. And when we went through that, it worked."
Rooney makes clear that he expects that the Rooney rule is not going to be around for too long. After the initial leg up when the successful hiring of minority managers is not in dispute the rule may not be needed at all. The punitive aspect might be a bit of flim flam but when the club willfully ignores the rule, they are potentially looking at black players who might be chary of signing up with the club. The powerful players union weighed in with their strong disapproval on a recent bid by a consortium that included Rush Limbaugh to buy out the St Louis Rams. Individual players strongly objected threatening a club boycott and in the end the consortium backed down.
To be fair when Noades made his views clear he was derided in England. By the time the Premiership was formed, 90% of the professional league had fielded at least one black player. A huge jump from the 1973-1974 season when just two clubs out of the 92 fielded a black player was in the roster. At the back, England turned to Rio Ferdinand, Wes Brown, Ashley Cole, and Sol Campbell in the 2002 World Cup to provide protection.
However when it comes to managers the record continues to be extremely dismal. As Simon Kuper points out it is old racism in a new bottle. Trevor Philips, the head of Britain's Commission on Equality and Human Rights puts it.
" Loads of black players on the field and none in the dugout."
Kuper is not optimistic as he says that unlike players who visibly fail or succeed and get weeded out in a process of natural selection, the optics by which a manager does the same is not clear. In short, one cannot distill into clear language why a manager succeeds. Because there have been many more white managers, some who can be deemed as successes the law of averages works adversely for black ex-players seeking employment as a coach. The fear of failing while taking a chance seems to have jeopardized Paul Ince's tenure at Blackburn. It also seems to be what is in operation at a larger level throughout the league.
The NFL is the petri dish for socialistic enterprises like a salary cap and revenue sharing. So affirmative action hiring practices are less hard to adopt and carry out. The Rooney Rule in the more sink or swim English league may not work. But there is no reason why a version cannot be explored. It is deplorable that with the death of Keith Alexander, the pool of black managers has been reduced to just the one. The situation is not any different when Luther Blissett in the 1990s when he applied to 22 clubs for the coaching job and was refused an interview from every single one of them.