Donald Sterling's banishment from the NBA hasn't, of course, fixed the problem of racism in society, though it has got us talking about discrimination in professional sports again. How long that lasts remains to be seen, but for now, at least, inequality is on everyone's mind. So when the Golden State Warriors unceremoniously fired Mark Jackson last week, it restarted the discussion on whether black coaches in the National Basketball Association are truly given a fair shot to succeed.
Some caveats: Jackson's firing wasn't all that surprising, with the tension between coach and management highly publicized for quite some time. It certainly seems as if it wasn't due to anything on the court -- Jackson helped turn around a 23-43 team in his first year as coach to a 51-31 playoff contender this season. He leaves Golden State with a 121-109 record and a .526 winning percentage in three seasons. Before Jackson's tenure, the Warriors hadn't won at least 50 games since 1993-94 and had finished above .500 just twice in the last two decades. Meanwhile, ownership reportedly had issues with Jackson's big personality and affinity for the cameras. And it may not have helped that Jackson reacted to Jason Collins's coming out last year by saying, "As a Christian man, I have beliefs of what's right and what's wrong. That being said, I know Jason Collins, I know his family, and am certainly praying for them at this time." (Not only is the San Francisco Bay Area one of the most gay-friendly places in the nation, but Warriors President Rick Welts is also the only openly gay front office executive in the NBA.)
The circumstances surrounding Jackson's firing are muddy and complicated, and certainly factor in issues outside of sideline performance. But how does race figure in? Stephen A. Smith suggested on ESPN's "First Take" that the Warriors letting go of Jackson was part of a larger trend. The black NBA community has long felt that coaches of color have a shorter leash, are given less time to win, and face a higher standard of success than their white counterparts.
This certainly appeared to be the case 10 years ago. In 2005, the New York Times's David Leonhardt and Ford Fessenden examined the issue:
Over the last decade, black N.B.A. coaches have lasted an average of just 1.6 seasons, compared with 2.4 seasons for white coaches, according to a review of coaching records by The New York Times. That means the typical white coach lasts almost 50 percent longer and has most of an extra season to prove himself.
At that time, 10 of the 30 head coaches in the NBA were black, and the Cleveland Cavaliers' Paul Silas, the New York Knicks' Lenny Wilkens and the Orlando Magic's Johnny Davis served as prime examples of coaches thrown into impossible situations and given less than two seasons to turn around losing teams. Meanwhile, white coaches including Jerry Sloan, Phil Jackson, Rick Adelman and Flip Saunders were bastions of coaching stability.
Have things changed much since? If you look back at the league's coaching history in the past decade, one thing is clear: Job security isn't one of the perks of being an NBA head coach. Since the 2004-05 season, there have been a whopping 122 head coaches in the league, excluding interims1 : 74 white, 48 black. Leaving out the 24 coaches still employed as of May 13, we're left with 98 coaches who have been fired or resigned in the last decade: 57 white, 41 black. The average tenure of these coaches was 2.95 seasons. It could thus be argued that regardless of race, NBA coaches work on short leashes -- a point Tom Ziller made for SB Nation last week.
Given that coaches tend to get yanked after less than three years on the bench, the question remains whether white coaches still get more leeway. On the surface, it looks that way: The average tenure for the white coaches was 3.18 seasons, compared with 2.64 seasons for the black coaches. These numbers suggest that white coaches benefit from an additional half season.
But when you control for former Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, the gap begins to close. Sloan helmed the team for more than 22 years, beginning in 1988-89 and resigning during the 2010-11 season. He's a statistical and coaching anomaly. When you discount him, the next highest-tenured white coach is Flip Saunders, whose 9.62 seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves was on the level of Doc Rivers's 9 seasons with the Boston Celtics, making for a more fair comparison of data sets. Without Sloan, the average tenure of the white coaches was 2.82 seasons -- still higher than for blacks, but not as drastic a difference as before.
Furthermore, the numbers don't suggest that white coaches are given the benefit of the doubt for more seasons before getting the ax. In the past 10 years, 51.2 percent of black coaches who left their teams did so after two seasons or less; 65.8 percent left after three seasons or less. Again, we don't see a huge deviation from their white counterparts: 49.1 percent of white coaches left after two seasons or less; 68.4 percent after three seasons or less.
Now comes the issue of a potential double standard of success. Jackson undeniably delivered results on the court, but is he part of an overarching trend? Do black coaches who have achieved success still get shortchanged? Those black coaches who left after two seasons or less had an average winning percentage of .394. Black coaches who lasted three seasons or less had an average winning percentage of .403. Again, these numbers are on par with white coaches with similar tenures, who had winning percentages of .395 and .416 after two seasons and three seasons, respectively.
So, looking purely at the numbers over the last decade, it seems that the disparity between white and black coaches is a statistical myth. Where does that myth come from, and why is it so easy to believe? I will investigate that in my next post.
1 For the purposes of this article, "interim coaches" are defined as coaches who took over in the middle of a season and served less than half a season on the bench.
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