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Miami Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel ought to know why he's being asked about race

If McDaniel thinks race is an absurd concept he's right, but that doesn't mean it's irrelevant.
Image: Miami Dolphins Head Coach Mike McDaniel.
Miami Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel talks to the media Thursday in Miami Gardens, Florida.Eric Espada / Getty Images

Miami Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel, hired by a team that’s been accused of discriminating against Black men, doesn’t describe himself as Black even though, according to the American rules of race, he is. McDaniel was born in the United States to a white mother and a Black father, which, according to the way race is understood here, makes him Black. That means that the National Football League can conceivably use his hiring as a kind of rebuttal to Brian Flores, the head coach the Dolphins just fired. Flores claims in a recent lawsuit that the NFL discriminates against Black men by rarely hiring them as head coaches and wrongly firing the few that they do hire.

Dolphins Head Coach Mike McDaniel doesn’t describe himself as Black even though, according to the American rules of race, he is.

"The NFL and our clubs are deeply committed to ensuring equitable employment practices and continue to make progress in providing equitable opportunities throughout our organizations," the NFL said in response to Flores’ suit. "Diversity is core to everything we do, and there are few issues on which our clubs and our internal leadership team spend more time. We will defend against these claims, which are without merit."

As for the Dolphins — one of three teams named in the suit — Jason Jenkins, a senior vice president for the franchise, said in a statement, “We vehemently deny any allegations of racial discrimination and are proud of the diversity and inclusion throughout our organization."

After the NFL's initial statement, Commissioner Roger Goodell said that the league has made diversity efforts, but “with respect to head coaches the results have been unacceptable.” Since Flores’ suit, the Houston Texas have hired Lovie Smith, a Black man, as coach, and the Dolphins have hired McDaniel.

McDaniel is one of those people who may have to tell you he’s Black, but, if his remarks Thursday at a news conference are any indication, he’s not going to. “It’s been very odd,” he said in response to a reporter’s question, “this idea of identifying as something. I think people identify me as something, but I identify as a human being — and my dad’s Black. So whatever you want to call it.”

Let us make the obvious point that we all identify as human beings and that acknowledgement of one’s race is not disregard for one’s humanity. McDaniel appears to be suggesting that he’s above race when, really, unlike the obviously Black Flores and the obviously Black Smith, he gets to choose how much the world knows about his racial makeup.

This month, in arguing for the “phenomenal” McDaniel to get a head coaching job, New York Jets coach Robert Saleh said, “People don't know this, but he's also a minority."

Amid complaints that the league is racist and that Black talent is valued on the field but rarely on the sidelines, did the “people don’t know this” part make McDaniel a more attractive hire to the Dolphins and the NFL? The NFL isn’t above cynical responses to complaints about racism. It’s a league that has had “End Racism” painted outside its end zones and has hired a few soloists to perform “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Black national anthem, but somehow can’t find room on a roster for Colin Kaepernick or Eric Reid, two talented athletes who publicly protested racism.

Will this same cynical league, in response to allegations that its record of hiring and firing Black coaches illustrates racism, now count McDaniel among its Black coaches even though he describes himself as “whatever you want to call it”?

The NFL isn’t above cynical responses to complaints about racism.

We do know the league counts him as a “minority” because, per league policy, it is rewarding McDaniel’s former team, the San Francisco 49ers, with two third-round draft picks for helping develop a minority assistant coach into head-coach material. But McDaniel’s language Thursday that he identifies as “a human being,” implies that he doesn’t embrace the “minority” designation, either.

McDaniel probably considers the concept of race absurd. It is. Race is a totally made-up thing. But the absurdity of it doesn’t reduce it to irrelevance. Nor does it contradict Flores’ argument that the NFL has been too slow to hire Black coaches and too fast to fire them.

My college friend Aaron, who’s Black with skin as fair as McDaniel’s, argues that there are three components to racial identity: genotype (what you are), phenotype (how you appear) and self-identity (what you say you are).

When people call out an institution for a history of not hiring Black people, we can assume that they’re demanding that the institution hire Black people who either appear to be Black or say they are. Otherwise, how does it meet the demand?

Aaron admitted Thursday to watching a clip of McDaniel at the news conference and feeling “deeply uncomfortable for him. You could literally see him squirming.” He added that even though McDaniel may be aware that the NFL is cynically using him as a response to Flores’ suit, he can’t call out that cynicism without turning down one of only 32 head coaching positions in the sport. And he couldn’t turn down such a position without joining Flores and Kaepernick, who, we can safely assume, won’t work in the NFL again.

This counts as a classic “Don’t hate the player; hate the game” moment. We ought not be angry at McDaniel for how he chooses to see himself. But we should be angry at the NFL whose historically poor record on race brought us to this moment and gives us reason to wonder how much the “people don’t know this” factored into McDaniel’s selection.