If you’ve watched football in the last decade there’s one thing you know for sure: Aaron Donald is the best defensive player of his generation. At 6’1” and nearly 300 pounds, with a neck and shoulders that look like they could easily carry one of the Mt. Rushmore sculptures, Donald is impossible to miss. And with 98 career sacks, three NFL Defensive Player of the Year trophies and a Super Bowl ring to his credit, Donald is clearly Hall of Fame bound.
I bring all this up to say that you don’t have to be a football scholar to know who Aaron Donald is. If you’re in LA, where he plays, or Pittsburgh, where he’s from and spends some of his offseason, and happen to see a light skinned dude who looks big enough to swallow you whole, bench press you for fun or cause a total eclipse of the sun depending on where he stands, that’s him.
Which is also to say that if you’re a professional football coach, it’d be fantastically impossible to not know who Aaron Donald is. That’d be like a surgeon not knowing the difference between a stethoscope and a scalpel or a lawyer forgetting what state they’re barred in. It’d be like a drug dealer forgetting whether it was time to reup on weed or blow, and then forgetting the going rate for either, and then calling his plug in front of an FBI field office and talking as loud as humanly possible.
It’d be malpractice. But according to an incredible story from The Athletic, it actually happened last season when the Jacksonville Jaguars–the NFL’s new standard for ineptitude–tried the destined-to-fail experiment of hiring Urban Meyer as their head coach. During his brief tenure, Meyer did things like trying out Tim Tebow, a former quarterback who flamed out of the NFL years ago, as a tight end, and hiring a strength coach who was fired because his Black players thought he was racist.
Meyer himself had issues with Black players when he was Ohio State’s head coach at the college level, a job from which he “retired” after a scandalous tenure back in 2018. It still didn’t stop the Jags from hiring him.
Meyer didn’t survive a full season in Jacksonville. But apparently, his time there was worse than everyone thought because according to the Athletic’s reporting on his tragic 13 games at the helm, holy shit, he didn’t even know who Aaron Donald was.
From The Athletic
Signs of dysfunction were apparent early on. Several sources said Meyer stepped into the job as if he had all the answers, even though he had never coached in the NFL.
Meyer said he conducted a six-month deep dive on the NFL that included interviews with his former Florida and Ohio State players as well as a study of the salary cap. But multiple sources said Meyer was unfamiliar with star players around the league, including 49ers receiver Deebo Samuel, Seahawks safety Jamal Adams and Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, a three-time NFL defensive player of the year.
“Who’s this 99 guy on the Rams?” Meyer asked one staffer during the season, according to a source. “I’m hearing he might be a problem for us.”
If you’re a non-sports fan whose eyes have glazed over at this point, I’ll reframe it for you: this isn’t a sports story. It’s a story about competence and what happens when someone is hired for a huge job despite lacking a basic knowledge required to do their jobs. It’s about something Black professionals have experienced: watching someone who’s clearly underqualified get, and fuck up, a high-profile, high-paying job while we wait, and age, and accumulate experience and education, and fume as we never get that call.
And it’s about what it costs organizations who continuously make these kinds of hiring decisions.
When doctors don’t know the difference between stethoscopes and scalpels, people end up dead. When pro football coaches don’t know who the 280-lb human quarterback eater is on the other side of the ball, lots of games get lost; the Jags went 2-11 before they showed Meyer the door.
It’s hardly coincidence that this all went down just months before Brian Flores sued the NFL for discrimination in its head coaching hiring practices. I can’t say Meyer was hired because he’s white, especially since the Jags’ have the only nonwhite principal owner among the NFL’s 32 teams. But it’s fair to say that Meyer got his job while multiple, more qualified Black coaches, like Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and Kansas City OC Eric Bienemy to name two, were looking for opportunities and getting passed over.
It’s what happens to Black would-be executives in Corporate America daily.
Maybe Meyer was kidding in what he said about Donald. It’d be hard to take any NFL head coach seriously after hearing it. But the dysfunction of his tenure and what it says about who can and can’t ascend, ain’t funny at all.