Beginning Monday, the NFL, in partnership with the Black College Football Hall of Fame, will take another step in promoting diversity in front offices across the league when it debuts the inaugural Ozzie Newsome General Manager Forum.
The forum, born out of the existing Quarterback Coaching Summit now in its fourth year, will host a few dozen rising names in the personnel world for a day-long panel aimed at giving them the tools necessary to get to the heights of their profession — where so few minorities have gotten.
"We have really focused on GMs but not in a dedicated way," says Natara Holloway, the NFL's VP of business operations and strategy for football operations. "And we felt after coming out of last year's session that we have such a caliber of talent that we really want to make sure they're getting what they need and it's not an afterthought to the coaches. So that's why this came about where we had the General Manager Forum."
More than four years ago, Black College Football Hall of Fame co-founders Doug Williams and James "Shack" Harris collaborated with several Black longtime coaches and executives on putting together a summit for Black coaches to share information and enhance hiring opportunities. The NFL got involved the following year, and each year the program has been refined to meet the needs of its growing participation list.
But other than those coaches participating, only three NFL clubs sent representation to the event two years ago. Last year, 20 clubs joined. Holloway is expecting between 30 and all 32 to join for this year's event, which will be held virtually for the second consecutive year.
About 150 coaches and personnel members have been invited to the event, which will be held over three days, with the first day dedicated specifically to the smaller group of GM candidates.
The league has worked with the Black College Hall of Fame and Fritz Pollard Alliance to devise the curriculum for the GM Forum. Sessions on how to best prepare for an interview, college and pro scouting advice, and how to fill out a personnel department are all topics on Monday's agenda, and prospective GMs will be hearing from Black men who have held or are holding those posts.
"How do you put yourself — your best self — out there. The, 'I know my stuff, and I'm really good at my job but there's that missing element that we never talk about,' and it's that networking piece and getting to know the players in that game," Holloway says. "Then the second piece is what are some of the elements that a potential GM should know and a GM would know. We have a panel that I think will be phenomenal on what it takes to be a GM. Some might say, 'I'm a really good scout and that makes me think I'm a GM.' But hearing from an actual GM on what you need to do I think is invaluable for those who are going to be participating."
It's not just the sharing of information that's important, but the networking that Holloway touches on. There will also be breakout sessions for participants to ask more detailed questions and get (virtual) face time with C-suite representation from NFL teams. Team owners Steve Bisciotti (Ravens), John Mara (Giants) and Kim Pegula (Bills) are slated to speak on panels, and the league expects other team owners to be in the "audience" and make themselves available in the private breakout sessions.
And that face time with team owners is one of the most crucial aspects of this entire process.
"The only thing that can affect this change is someone hiring," says Shack Harris, who was the first Black quarterback to start in a regular-season opener in the Super Bowl era and who served as the de facto GM of the Jaguars from 2003 until 2008. "We're basically trying to provide information, exposure. We can provide some people who we think are very qualified to run NFL teams who have experience, who've been productive and they've been passed over. We can provide that. But the only thing that can correct the problem that we're having is somebody with the ability to hire them."
According to the league's data, 37 men have been hired as a team's general manager since the start of the 2012 regular season through Super Bowl LV in February. Thirty-one of those men have been white. Brad Holmes, Terry Fontenot and Martin Mayhew all landed GM roles this offseason in what was — relatively speaking, of course — one of most positive GM cycles for minorities in recent years.
CBS Sports reached out to a handful of Black personnel men in recent weeks to gauge their thoughts on this inaugural forum. The responses ranged from cautious optimism to hesitancy to pessimism. The overarching concern was, simply, 'will this work?'
"I love that question. I don't want to give anyone the idea that we think we are anywhere near where we want to be. The numbers will prove themselves out," a passionate Holloway said over Zoom. "Whatever they may say, we have made significant progress over the last year in policy, in opportunity, in exposure, in interviews. It is nowhere, nowhere near where we want to be. I will say in my 17 years a lot of progress has been made from ownership involvement to policy being made.
"As I always tell people one game doesn't get you to the Super Bowl. We've got to make sure that we have progressive wins along the way. Nowhere near where we want to be. That's what makes us all get up and do this every single day because we know how strong this league can be from a diverse perspective."
The forum is yet another effort by the NFL to promote diversity among its clubs, but those decisions aren't up to the league office and never have been. Hopefully those team owners and presidents will make themselves available for the three-day workshop to better realize the talent that's out there.
"I think we have to continue to prepare for the opportunity when it comes," Harris says. "There's going to be times of frustration, but we can't allow that to discourage you from preparing for the opportunity. It's all about being ready when that opportunity comes."