Sunday, January 12, 2020

Critical Race Studies and the New York Giants Coaching Search

Mark Graber

My partial penance for living too blessed a life is my long time suffering as a New York Giant football fan.  This year, in a decade-long quest to achieve at least mediocrity, my Giants hired Joe Judge, a relatively unknown assistant coach formerly with the New England Patriots.  When asked to justify this selection, ownership pointed out how Judge commanded the room during his job interview.  Reporters who attended Judge’s first press conference confirmed that Judge has a remarkable command over the room.  This command was sufficient to justify the hiring of an unknown white coach in a league where the percentage of non-white players dwarfs the percentage of non-white coaches (and the percentage of non-white coaches dwarfs the percentage of non-whites in ownership/management).

My experiences working with undergraduate and law school trial teams suggest that the seemingly neutral quality, “can command the room,” is hardly neutral in practice.  When ranking our students, white attorneys who judge our competitions are more inclined to say white student attorneys successfully commanded the room, while African-American attorneys who judge our competitions are more likely to say that African-American student attorneys commanded the room (don’t get me started on women, where as best I can figure out both the male and female attorneys who judge our trials often rank female student attorneys randomly on their capacity to command the room).  That the white management of the New York Giants and a group of largely white reporters (and in fairness, several former African-American NYGiant football players at the press conference) ranked Judge high on capacity to command the room is not surprising.  We might nevertheless wonder whether Eric Bieniemy, a better known African-American coach with demonstrated motivational abilities, might have better commanded the room at his coaching interview had the Giants had two African-American owners and an African-American general manager or better commanded the room at the press conference had most of the reporters been African-American.  Who would better command a room of football players, most of whom are African-American, is an open question.

I do not believe the Giants ownership is guilty of implicit bias or racism in any simple sense.  The classic case of implicit bias is when persons react differently to persons with the same credentials, but different races/genders/etc.  The white couple making $60,000 a year with $60,000 in the bank gets the mortgage while the couple of color with the same income and savings does not.  My experience working with undergraduate and law school trial teams, as well as at numerous academic conferences, suggests that different people have different strategies for commanding the room.  While there is no distinctive white or black (or male or female) strategy for commanding the room, strategies for commanding the room do correlate in part to race and gender.  In short, what Giant ownership may have been reacting to is a particularly strategy for commanding the room that tends to be employed by and appeals to white persons, while, in the case of Eric Bieniemy, downgrading to some extent a particular strategy for commanding the room that tends to be employed by and appeals to African-Americans. 

What lesson one should draw from this is unclear.  I was neither at the coaching interviews nor at the press conference.   Could easily be that Joe Judge objectively commands a room better than anyone else.   I’m a souped up legal historian, not an expert on football coaching.  Still, the unquestioned use of the phrase “command the room” in the media may highlight the powerful presence of race in our daily lives just when race appears to be entirely absent.

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