Coaching

Bruce Arians Is an Antiracist – and a Damn Smart Coach

Research shows that diverse teams and coaching staffs enjoy greater success.

Posted Feb 14, 2021

Last weekend, Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ head coach, Bruce Arians, became the oldest coach in the National Football League to win a title at 68 years old. Prior to this stint with Tampa, Arians was the head coach for Indianapolis and Arizona, compiling a more than respectable 80-49 record. Along the way, Arians also gained a reputation for being a players’ coach — letting players play, adapting his system to their strengths, and loving them hard

Another thing that sets Arians apart: His coaching staff is the most diverse in the NFL in terms of race and gender. The Bucs are the only NFL team that employs Black coordinators in four major spots, with Byron Leftwich running the offense, Todd Bowles on defense, Keith Armstrong coordinating special teams, and Harold Goodwin as assistant head coach/running game coordinator. The Bucs also the only team in the league with two women in full-time coaching roles; Lori Locust serves as assistant defensive line coach and Maral Javadifar is the assistant strength and conditioning coach.

ESPN analyst Ryan Clark, a retired NFL defensive back, had the gall (note the sarcasm) to point this fact out on Twitter after the Bucs’ win, noting “Thank you Bruce Arians for showing the world that all 3 of your coordinators can be black, your assistant head coach can be black, you can have two full-time women coaches and be the best team in the world. BA you’re a trailblazer. Leadership doesn’t have a look!” 

Having this diversity on staff is a clear win for Arians and the Bucs, particularly given the NFL’s continued lack of diversity in leadership positions like the head coach and GM. Seemingly qualified Black coordinators — like the Bucs’ own Bowles and Kansas City’s Eric Bienemy — have repeatedly lost out to objectively less qualified white candidates. Anyone see the introductory presser for the Lions’ new coach, Dan Campbell? It’s must-watch TV, but for all the wrong reasons. 

The reality is that NFL franchises ultimately care about one thing and one thing only: Winning football games. So, the argument goes, they hire the best person to lead the team to the promised land. That person, all too often, just so happens to be a white guy. NFL teams are missing the point, though — decades of research shows that diverse teams and coaching staffs are more successful than homogenous ones.  

Does diversity really improve performance?

The notion that having a diverse coaching staff or team can, in and of itself, result in success seems like wishful thinking. Throw a bunch of people from different backgrounds together and *poof* your performance improves. It’s not quite that easy, but the research does support the general idea.

The thinking goes something like this: Intentionally inviting diversity onto a team increases the range of perspectives that are in the room, allows the team to generate a greater number of possible solutions to a problem, and improves overall decision making

For an NFL coaching staff, this might mean that instead of one or two viewpoints on, say, creating an offensive gameplan dominating the conversation, there could be four or five to consider. Diversity could also mean that, after a rough first half, the coaching staff would dream up three potential second-half adjustments instead of just one. In weighing those options — the gameplans, second-half adjustments — diversity also means that the staff is more likely to choose the right one.

Yep, there are data on that

Several studies support these notions. In one investigation, researchers examined NCAA Division I coaching staffs to assess whether their racial composition was related to team success [1]. The study concluded that unsurprising factors like past coaching experience were predictive of team success — and so was the racial diversity of staff. The authors argued that this relationship is likely due, at least in part, to the innovative and comprehensive decisions that diverse teams make.

Another study that examined this association contacted 75 NCAA athletic departments, allocating points based on the performance of all the teams at a given school [2]. This investigation also reported that the racial diversity of athletic department personnel was related to greater overall success for the department’s teams. Interestingly, there was a caveat to this finding: the relationship primarily held for departments who took a proactive approach to diversify their staff.

This final point is important, as it aligns with other work showing that for diversity to be influential, there has to be organizational buy-in from top to bottom. So, circling back to the original proposition, it isn’t enough just to throw a bunch of people from different backgrounds together. Team members must be carefully selected and, more importantly, feel that everyone in the organization supports their inclusion at the table. 

Bruce Arians’ success with the Bucs isn’t accidental — by creating a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment, he maximized the team’s potential to succeed.

References

[1] Cunningham, G. B., & Sagas, M. (2004). People make the difference: The influence of human capital and diversity on team performance. European Sport Management Quarterly, 4, 3-21.

[2] Cunningham, G. B. (2009). The moderating effect of diversity strategy on the relationship between racial diversity and organizational performance. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 39, 1445-1460.3

[3] Cunningham, G. B. (2009). Understanding the diversity-related change process: A field study. Journal of Sport Management, 23, 407-428.