February 24, 2023

Diversity Is Strength Conversations: Black Leadership in Football

Kevin Sousa, Brett Holmes, Matt Smith/CFL.ca

Donnovan Bennett doesn’t hide his frustration with the storyline that he’s been watching on repeat year after year south of the border.

“I personally am frustrated and exasperated about the state of coaching south of the border for Black men. I essentially could write the same article every year and just change the dates and the names because the conversation hasn’t changed,” he said while in conversation with Hamilton Tiger-Cats president of football operations and head coach Orlondo Steinauer as part of the CFL’s Diversity Is Strength Conversations series.

Canada and by extension the CFL aren’t a utopia that sit above the matters of inequality that feature so prominently in the United States. Inequality isn’t bound by borders and while there are issues to address here, there are also things to celebrate.

Into his second season as the Ticats’ president of football operations, Steinauer is doing his part to make a difference.

“When you get an opportunity like this, what are you able to do with it, with things that you can ‘control,'” Steinauer told Bennett.

“I’m extremely for the best person for the job, there’s something to be said for that. But there’s also a responsibility that comes with that, I believe.

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“Even when I was the defensive coordinator, we were able to bring in guest coaches and I kind of used that as a diversity program, like a minority internship type of thing without anybody knowing. That’s something that I’m happy to share openly.

“I would always make sure that there was a person of colour, per se to come in and get an opportunity and to get recognized. I think the same thing happened when I was hiring staff (with later promotions). Again, I am for the best person for the job but I think giving people opportunities to interview and to be seen in different ways and just to expose them to different opportunities was extremely important to me.”

Through interviews with Steinauer, Toronto Argonauts defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Corey Mace and Edmonton Elks assistant general manager Geroy Simon, Bennett discusses each of their experiences in their post-playing careers and what they’d like the future to look like for the next generation of players, coaches and front office executives. Each have earned and are maximizing their opportunities.

Inspired by his grandfather, Samuel L. Gravely — the first Black admiral in the U.S. Navy — who has a ship commissioned in his name, the USS Gravely and his grandmother, Olivia Rowe, who was the first Black woman to work in the coal mines of Pennsylvania, Simon feels the weight of representing himself, his name and the organization he works for. He acknowledges that as a Black man in his role, he faces a unique scrutiny.

“I’ve been conscious of race and how I’m viewed each and every day for my entire career, pretty much my entire life,” Simon said.

“I always say the first impression is the way that people see you. When you walk up to someone, the way you greet someone. So I’m very conscious of the way I dress, the way I present myself, the way I speak to someone, the way that I greet a child or a fan, because I know that not only do you get scrutinized for being an athlete, but you get you get scrutinized for being a Black man.

“Especially in the role that I’m in, I feel like I have to be two or three times better than the next person, especially if the person is not Black because the scrutiny is always there. There’s the people that think you’re going to scheme them or whatever and not be truthful. So it’s important to me to represent not only myself but the organization the proper way and know that I always have to be professional in each and every thing that I do.”

Argos’ defensive coordinator and d-line coach Corey Mace sees a CFL locker room as an example of what the world could be like (Kevin Sousa/CFL.ca)

At the end of a very interesting conversation with Mace, Bennett asked the Vancouver native where we can get better, whether it’s in Canadian football or Canada in general in relations with Black people.

Admitting his bias due to being in the environment for so much of his life — he played six years for the Calgary Stampeders and has coached the last seven in the CFL — he said there’s much to be gleamed from a CFL locker room.

If we can go ahead and just spread what we do in a locker room in the CFL into society, man, I think we’re A-1,” he said.

“Now, especially with the Global initiative…you’ve got Black guys coming from the States, you got Black guys coming from Canada, you’ve got even integrating with your teammates who aren’t Black, and just seeing how everybody has to figure it out to work together.

“And let’s be honest. If you’ve been in a football locker room, that’s a lot of people. Not everybody’s going to love, love, love, love each other. That’s the goal. But you’ll have respect. You’ll have understanding to figure out to attain a common goal. Essentially, if you’re really thinking about all the issues, if we could get that, an understanding. That’s a great starting point, I think in society. 

“I honestly think the CFL has a unique view on what we’re trying to attain outside of a locker room. I think we’re already mastering it inside of a locker room here in Canada, man. I think as a league we can probably just continue to do and lead from the front. The Black players’ experience up here in Canada is usually…we were the first to do it before other leagues down south.

“So continue to lead from the front and then put some cameras around man and let people see what that really looks like. I think we could understand as a league, that I think we have a lot more power than we maybe see it.”

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