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First on CNN: New NFL initiative aims to help minority businesses get contracts

By Athena Jones and Nicquel Terry Ellis, CNN

(CNN) — The National Football League launched a new program aimed at increasing the number of minority- and women-owned businesses that work with the league throughout the year.

The initiative, called NFL Source, was announced during the league’s spring meeting in Nashville on Tuesday and aims to encourage teams to reinvest in their communities by doing business with underrepresented populations.

Jonathan Beane, senior vice president and chief diversity & inclusion officer at the NFL, told CNN the program will be its most expansive diversity, equity and inclusion initiative to date and will touch “on the whole ecosystem of the National Football League.”

“It involves the clubs [teams], it involves the league, it involves our tentpole events. It touches everything,” Beane said of the new program.

“We are ramping up our efforts to drive supplier diversity at the league office: IT, marketing, content, it goes on and on, every business unit is going to be looking for specific opportunities and whenever a contract comes up, it’s a natural [contracting] process which has slated diverse vendors,” Beane said.

The NFL’s latest effort to increase diversity and inclusion comes a week after the league distanced itself from recent remarks Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker made during a commencement address that many considered sexist, and homophobic.

“Harrison Butker gave a speech in his personal capacity. His views are not those of the NFL as an organization,” Beane said in a statement  Wednesday. “The NFL is steadfast in our commitment to inclusion, which only makes our league stronger.”

The new initiative also comes as DEI policies and efforts in corporate America and academia have faced a series of attacks from critics and some conservative lawmakers. Major universities and companies have slashed teams dedicated to DEI and wealthy corporate leaders, such as Bill Ackman and Elon Musk, have decried diversity programs on social media.

Despite the backlash, Beane said the league remains committed to DEI and creating an inclusive environment “because that leads to higher productivity, better business solutions, more innovation and more creativity.”

“We’re not in the business of sitting back and following someone or waiting or seeing if this is ok,” he said. “We want to be the benchmark in the sports industry and hopefully get to the point where hopefully we can be a benchmark for companies as a whole.”

The NFL Source will be mandatory for teams that host major events, such as the Super Bowl and the NFL Draft, and their organizing committees, but will be optional for other contracts at the team level.

“We are not going to force every club [team] to participate in this,” Beane said. “Just because a club does not opt-in doesn’t mean they’re still not working on diversifying their vendors, but with this, what we’re hoping is to get as many clubs as possible engaged into this program.”

The NFL spends hundreds of millions of dollars on contracts with businesses each year, according to a spokesperson.

While previous efforts to improve supplier diversity have focused on subcontracting opportunities, officials told CNN NFL Source will help the league and its 32 teams identify potential partners for both year-round and subcontract consideration.

Until now, each NFL team handled the selection of suppliers of goods and services differently, but NFL Source will standardize the way the league and its partners work with certified businesses that are 51% owned and operated by a minority, a woman, a person with disabilities, someone who is LGBTQ+ or a veteran, according to a statement obtained by CNN.

NFL Source will provide a centralized entry point for these companies through a new website, with one set of procurement standards and procedures, including criteria for which businesses will be eligible for a contract, the league said.

The league also plans to distribute a diversity playbook of businesses to teams that opt into the program in September 2024.

In the past, efforts to address diversity and racial inequality in the NFL have been met with criticism from both fans and staff alike.

Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was criticized in 2016 when he began kneeling during the national anthem in protest of racial injustice and ongoing police brutality in the US. His protest sparked a movement and inspired other athletes – from elementary schools to professional leagues – to also take a knee. 

Kaepernick and his fellow teammate, Eric Reid, later filed a lawsuit against the NFL alleging that teams kept them from playing because they protested. Both parties ultimately reached a settlement, CNN previously reported.

But the kneeling controversy also became a political lightning rod and fiercely divided fans. Then-President Donald Trump said team owners should fire players for taking a knee during the national anthem.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired,” Trump said at a 2017 rally in Alabama.

In 2020, NFL players recognized the nation’s racial reckoning by wearing helmets, cleats, and shorts with phrases such as “No Justice, No peace” and “Black Lives Matter.” The phrase “End Racism” was also painted on each team’s end zone.

That same year the NFL announced it would pledge $250 million over 10 years to help fight systemic racism after Black NFL players demanded the league take a strong position in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, CNN previously reported.

On Monday, Beane said the pledge has surpassed $370 million, and the funds have helped support organizations dedicated to prison reform and education, among other causes.

Although people of color make up nearly 70% of NFL players in 2022, some teams have also come under fire for historically denying people of color the chance to be head coaches.

To address this, the league adopted the Rooney Rule in 2003, which was named for the late, longtime Steelers owner and chairman of the NFL’s DEI committee, Dan Rooney, and requires every team to interview external minority and/or female candidates for open head coach, general manager and executive positions.

In 2022, Brian Flores, now the Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator, filed a federal civil lawsuit against the NFL and three teams alleging, among other things, racial discrimination in the league’s hiring practices despite the rule – an allegation that the league denies.

Last week, the NFL announced Flores is a part of the 2024 Coach Accelerator Program. Some past participants in the program have been interviewed for open positions or “promoted and hired into more senior coaching positions,” the league said in the announncement.

According to a December 2023 report by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, the league has improved its hiring of more people of color and women, improved the diversity of assistant coaches, but received low grades for racial and gender diversity among team owners.

There are now nine minority head coaches, including seven who are Black, a spokesperson told CNN.

Beane said he expects NFL Source may receive backlash from some NFL fans, teams and critics, but the league remains committed to inclusion.

“For us, we know that everything we do is not going to make every single fan happy,” Beane said. “But also, we feel very strongly that we have to continue this path because it falls within the true values and culture of the National Football League.”

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