While it's normal to learn about grievances against top teams during Super Bowl week, this one is a bit strange. The nugget is hidden in an in-depth profile of San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan that was published Wednesday.
"We know he can hire well and diverse," Wickersham wrote. "In fact, owners have complained to the league office about the sheer number of compensatory picks the 49ers have received for serving as a pipeline for coaches and executives of color."
It makes sense that the detail was included to credit the accomplished head coach ahead of an exciting rematch with the reigning Super Bowl champions on football's biggest stage. But it's hard to gloss over the tidbit, even though it's sandwiched between a wealth of information about how Shanahan has prepared his team to face the Kansas City Chiefs.
The reality is that San Francisco is succeeding with a diverse staff — but not in a way that other teams couldn't mimic. The team is making good use of the league's incentives, which were established to rectify a longstanding systemic issue that has historically allowed racism to bar people of color from advancing in NFL leadership roles.
The league adopted the Rooney Rule in 2003, requiring teams to interview at least one person of color for head-coaching roles. The rule, which aimed to improve the low number of minorities in head-coaching positions, has seen changes since. While last year’s six minority head coaches were lauded by the NFL, the number still represented less than 25% of the 32 jobs.
In November 2020, team owners approved a proposal to reward franchises who developed diverse talent. Now, when teams lose a minority executive or coach to a promotion with another team, they receive a third-round compensatory pick for two years. If a team loses both a coach and a personnel member, it receives a third-rounder for three years.
San Francisco had seven compensatory picks in the 2023 NFL Draft, which is the maximum amount allotted. Three of them were third-round selections granted via the league's minority hiring incentive.
Current starting quarterback Brock Purdy, the last selection of the 2022 draft, joined the 49ers via a compensatory pick. The same is true for linebacker Dre Greenlaw and All-Pro safety Talanoa Hufanga.
A quick scan of the 49ers' coaching roster shows a wealth of diversity, and it's nothing new for the team. Since 2020, San Francisco has seen multiple diverse staff members succeed beyond the organization. The list includes Robert Saleh, a son of Lebanese immigrants who was hired to be the New York Jets head coach in 2021. He is the first Muslim coach in NFL history.
Martin Mayhew, who is Black, was hired from San Francisco to be the Washington Commanders general manager. Mike McDaniel left the 49ers to become the Miami Dolphins head coach. Ran Carthon left to join the Tennessee Titans as general manager. DeMeco Ryans went on to become the Houston Texans’ head coach.
All of those hirings awarded the 49ers compensatory picks. More important, they chipped away at the league's diversity deficit. The issue took center stage amid Brian Flores’ racial discrimination lawsuit in 2022, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is asked about the issue every February.
This year, he said what he often says: "We still have a lot of work to do."