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Broncos' Vic Fangio apologizes for statement on race in NFL, showing why his narrow focus was wrong

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

Since context and fairness matter, maybe more than ever in our soundbite, social media pull-quote world, Vic Fangio said a lot of things Tuesday that should find almost universal agreement. 

The Denver Broncos coach said he was “shocked, sad and angry” over the killing of George Floyd, in which at least one person is facing at least third-degree murder charges. He called for former Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin to be “punished to the fullest extent of the law.” He put the burden of change on everyone, not just those directly impacted.

“This is a societal issue that we all have to join in to correct,” Fangio said. 

Then he, unwittingly, made it clear the part of that “societal issue” in which he, in particular, needs to join.

“I think our problems in the NFL along those lines are minimal,” Fangio, who is 61 and spent 33 years in the NFL before getting a head coaching job last year (the Broncos went 7-9). “We're a league of meritocracy. You earn what you get. You get what you earn. 

“I don't see racism at all in the NFL," Fangio continued. "I don't see discrimination in the NFL. We all live together, joined as one, for one common goal, and we all intermingle and mix tremendously. If society reflected an NFL team, we'd all be great.”

Vic Fangio is entering his second season as a head coach of the Broncos. (Photo by Timothy Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

The negative reaction to that was swift. NFL players. Former NFL players. Former NFL coaches. Essentially, Fangio doesn’t see it, they say, because he isn’t looking.

“Is he blind??” Seattle Seahawks defensive back Quandre Diggs tweeted Tuesday.

Fangio apologized for his statement on Wednesday morning, saying, “While I have never personally experienced those terrible things first-hand during my 33 years in the NFL, I understand that many players, coaches and staff have different perspectives.”

While Fangio may coach in the high-profile NFL, he represents what should be a new day for every coach in every sport, or every leader everywhere.

He may be correct that when filling out a depth chart, NFL coaches don’t care about skin color. These are just chess pieces on the board. Best man wins. Etc. Yet to think that is all that constitutes the NFL experience suggests a lack of perspective. In essence, his focus is too narrow to see what was hiding in plain sight.

“To say there's no racism and no problem, I think, really is not recognizing the situation,” former NFL coach Tony Dungy said Wednesday on ESPN. 

Dungy went on to discuss the lack of coaches of color and decision-makers of color in a league that is overwhelmingly African American. It is a fair point and a league-wide issue.

Considering how many losing franchises are plagued by incompetence from the sideline to the draft room to the owner’s suite, then the league’s so-called meritocracy doesn’t work very effectively. There is a market inefficiency to be exploited by a wise team.

It’s more than that, however. Fangio was talking about players, but only mostly in terms of having the opportunity to play.

Once, especially when many coaches did see color and would make personnel or scholarship decisions based on it, that may have been enough. It can't be anymore, at least not for someone such as Fangio, who says he wants to “join in to correct” the problems that continue to plague our society.

This needs to scale. Bigger, broader, deeper, directionally. It has to move in new ways or we just relive the old days. It can’t just be about how everyone played hard together on Sunday, so there must be no issue. Besides, collaborative effort is easier to create in the NFL because everyone’s (sizable) paycheck and career goals are aligned. You need the guy next to you to succeed for you to succeed.

Sunday is just one day of the week though, and just 16 (or so) of the year. There are, undoubtedly, issues and divisions and misunderstandings and wrongdoings (conscious or not) the rest of the time. The locker room has often been a wonderful melting pot that has long helped our country understand each other. That takes effort though. It can also be a resource, one that is too often untapped.

Seeing players only as players also can mean they aren’t seen as people. It minimizes their journey. To view the justness of the operation solely on wins and losses is to miss the lives that go into it. 

This shouldn’t be considered an obligation for the modern coach – NFL or otherwise. This shouldn’t be a scolding. It is, rather, an opportunity for advancement, a glorious gift to do better. Diversity is a strength of living organisms and that should include teams. Diversity of race, of perspective, of background, of thought, of experience and so on.  

Getting to tap into this from all sides is the kind of thing that should excite a great leader. To not see it at all, to only see numbers and uniforms, misses so much.

Vic Fangio likely meant well with his comments. He is, by all accounts, a good man. He’s been in football his entire life, and while he assuredly benefited along the way from a system that favors white coaches, whatever he was gifted he accepted with admirable grind. Three years in high school, two stints at the college level, the season in the old USFL and then time with seven NFL franchises, slowly, slowly, slowly climbing the ladder. 

Now he’s at the top. Hopefully he takes advantage of the view, like all of us should, and rather than not see race, try to see race in ways that we failed to before.

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