Cronyism. Bad hires. Blind spots. NFL's nepotism has lasting impact on minority coaches

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Television cameras lingered on Mike Shanahan, seated inside a suite at Empower Field at Mile High.

Although his name sits in the stadium’s Ring of Fame — Shanahan was head coach of the Denver Broncos for 14 seasons and won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1997-98 — he did not attend the Week 3 Sunday Night Football game to reminisce. His son, Kyle Shanahan, was on the visiting sideline for the first time during his sixth season as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. 

The NBC broadcast then cut to Paul Hackett, who spent more than 20 years as an assistant in the NFL. He looked on as his son, Nathaniel Hackett,  navigated his third game as Denver’s head coach.

For Dr. C. Keith Harrison, the research leader of the NFL’s annual diversity and inclusion report, the images of fathers in the stands and sons on the sidelines was a striking visual of “an issue that is well-documented”: nepotism. 

Former Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan (front) and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan (back) side by side during a game against the San Francisco 49ers. They are just one of many father-son duos throughout NFL history. (James Lang-USA TODAY Sports)

“We know how it happens,” said Harrison, a professor of sports business management at the University of Central Florida. “But how does it continue to happen?

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“So are (coaches) biased with their kids? Yes, obviously yes. They help their family members.”

What is nepotism in the NFL? 

Nepotism is one the league’s most controversial issues. In some cases, like the Shanahan family, it can create paths to success, even Super Bowls. Conversely, it leads to bad hires, cronyism and can create a blockade for coaches of color.

“We still battle nepotism,” NFL executive vice president for football operations Troy Vincent told USA TODAY Sports during a discussion about the league’s diversity issues in coaching.

In 2022, 12 of the 34 NFL head coaches (counting two interim coaches) are related to current or former coaches in the league, according to USA TODAY Sports data and research. Other findings include:

  • Of the 717 on-field coaches this season, at least 93 coaches (13%) have a father, son or brother who is a current or former NFL coach. 
  • Of those 93 coaches with connections, 76 are white (81.7%).
  • Seven head coaches are either the son or father of a former NFL coach.

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