Cornell Law instructor advises NFL on diversity hiring
By James Dean, Cornell Chronicle
During a sprint football minicamp this spring, assistant coach Michael L. Huyghue ’84 diagrammed plays on a whiteboard at Schoellkopf Field, instructing special teams players on “bogey responsibility” and “busting the wedge.”
Later, the visiting professor of the practice at Cornell Law School and former Big Red varsity wide receiver arranged for an All-Pro National Football League player to address the sprint team via Zoom.
For Huyghue, a sports business expert and former NFL general manager, teaching and mentoring at Cornell complement ongoing work he considers the most important of his career – advising the NFL on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in its hiring practices.
Since last fall, Huyghue has been working with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and other partners to promote DEI from the front offices down, an issue that has attracted even more intense scrutiny since former head coach Brian Flores alleged racist hiring practices in a February 2022 lawsuit.
By the end of the summer, Huyghue, working on behalf of the nonprofit Fritz Pollard Alliance, expects to complete visits to all 32 NFL teams to discuss the value of DEI and hiring best practices, meeting with team owners and presidents in addition to human resources and diversity managers.
“We stand beside the league now in the new efforts to bring about improvement in diversity hiring,” Huyghue said during a press conference at the NFL annual meetings in Florida earlier this year. “We have a seat at the table.”
With the league’s top HR and diversity officials and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II, chair of the NFL’s Workplace Diversity Committee, Huyghue helped unveil several new initiatives, including a requirement to hire at least one minority or woman assistant coach on offense, and naming a diversity advisory committee.
“We’ve worked for years and made progress in many areas to ensure that staff and leaders in our office and at our clubs reflect the racial and gender makeup of America, but we have more work to do, particularly at the head coach and front-office level,” Goodell said in a press release about the advisory committee. “This esteemed group’s work will help us build a more inclusive league.”
In late May – before attending the graduation of his son, sprint player Tyler Huyghue ’22 – Huyghue helped shape the agenda for spring league meetings in Atlanta. They included the NFL’s inaugural Coach and Front Office Accelerator program, which offered leadership development and networking for 60 diverse coaching and general manager prospects.
Huyghue said the new policies and his meetings with teams are signs of meaningful progress and collaboration amid criticism that the “Rooney Rule” – which since 2003 has required teams to interview minority head coaching and general manager candidates – has failed to achieve change. Currently, in a league in which roughly 70% of players are Black, only six head coaches are nonwhite.
Early this year, Huyghue worked with minority candidates including Flores to help them prepare for the season’s hiring cycle. The results then – minorities filled only two of nine head coach openings – were discouraging, he said, but highlighted systemic challenges in a way that may ultimately prove beneficial.
“If we had had a couple of more minority hires, we might have been able to pat ourselves on the back and say we’re doing a good job,” Huyghue said. “But it would have only been a Band-Aid to what is the larger picture with respect to how minority candidates get access to those positions.”
Huyghue is perhaps uniquely positioned to serve as a trusted adviser at the league’s highest levels and as a bridge between minority candidates and teams that say they are acting in good faith.
He helped found and served as commissioner of the United Football League from 2009-12. Before that he was among the youngest and first Black general managers in the NFL, serving as GM of the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars, senior vice president and general counsel for the Detroit Lions, and head of operations for the World League of American Football.
A former alumni-elected member of the Cornell Board of Trustees and recipient of a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences alumni achievement award, Huyghue credits Cornell with helping to propel his early career, starting as a legal intern with the NFL Players Association.
“I’ve seen change and perhaps been a change agent by breaking down barriers,” he wrote in “Behind the Line of Scrimmage: Inside the Front Office of the NFL.” “I’ve struggled inside and outside the exclusive and restrictive organization that is the NFL, and I believe my story can shed light on concerns about race in the NFL and sports in general.”
Last fall, Huyghue said Goodell asked him to conduct a deep dive into the league’s diversity practices. He submitted a report with some 20 recommendations, roughly a dozen of which he said have already been adopted.
Huyghue said they strive to create more structured and transparent hiring processes throughout teams; develop talent pipelines, including more equal access to networking and mentoring opportunities; ensure that job openings and requirements are clear and communicated; and guard against overt or implicit biases. One example: When interviewing for coaching jobs, former players may be questioned more about their playing days, while others are quizzed about tactics and philosophy.
Huyghue, who teaches “The Art of Negotiation in Business and Sports” at the Law School and in the ILR School, said he’s supported Flores’ lawsuit to the extent that it seeks to improve communication and improve dysfunctional hiring processes.
His own mission, he said, has been constructive change designed to level the field and win buy-in for more diverse hiring – not as an imposed requirement, but as good business.
“Understanding that when you’re looking at the best people for the job, that they come from a rainbow of colors and backgrounds and gender,” Huyghue said. “I’m confident we’re moving in the right direction.”