Strengthening the NFL’s Rooney Rule

There’s no question the Rooney Rule has changed the NFL’s culture. When Mike Tomlin this month led the Pittsburgh Steelers to their second Super Bowl appearance in his first four seasons as a head coach, at least some of the buzz was about his success — not only that he’s African American.

Reaching this point was a long, difficult road, which N. Jeremi Duru explains in his outstanding new book, “Advancing The Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL.” Duru, a Temple University law professor, details the history of the process that resulted in the Rooney Rule, which was named after Steelers owner Dan Rooney.

The rule, in place since 2003 for head coaches and expanded in 2009 to include general manager jobs and equivalent front-office positions, mandates that NFL teams interview at least one minority candidate for job openings. It was aimed at increasing diversity in the management ranks of a league in which the overwhelming majority of players are black.

The rule gave owners the first league-wide tool to potentially make hiring more inclusive. The outcome generally has been favorable; minorities have made strides in filling key positions.

But in light of the questions that were raised about whether the Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks adhered to the rule before hiring Mike Shanahan and Pete Carroll, respectively, as head coaches before last season, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell needs to sharpen the tool. At the very least, he should insist teams provide him with complete transcripts to prove that substantive interviews occurred.

“It is a process-oriented rule,” Duru said in a phone interview Thursday. “But of course, we can’t get into the states of mind of the various decision-makers.”

Before officially hiring Shanahan, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder supposedly interviewed the team’s secondary coach, Jerry Gray, who is African American. There was widespread speculation “as to whether Snyder viewed Gray as a genuine candidate or as an employee he could manipulate into sitting for an ostensibly Rooney Rule-satisfying interview,” Duru wrote.

The Seahawks were far down the road with Carroll before they interviewed African American Leslie Frazier, at the time the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive coordinator. Carroll was hired shortly after Frazier, now Minnesota’s head coach, interviewed.

Those situations revealed the Rooney Rule’s underlying flaw: the potential for sham interviews.

Critics of the rule unfairly label it as the NFL’s affirmative action program. But there is “no hiring requirement . . . there is no quota,” Duru said. “There’s no restriction on the number of people who can be interviewed. The only benefit that the interviewee who is of color gets is an opportunity to show that that person can do the job.”

Well, as long as the interviewer has an open mind. And there’s no mechanism in place to assure a truly fair process.

Despite obvious problems with the Shanahan and Carroll hirings, the NFL and the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which helps oversee compliance of the rule, determined that the Redskins and the Seahawks met its minimum standards. They were satisfied, after speaking with Gray, Frazier and representatives of the teams, that disciplinary action was not necessary.

Problem is, last offseason was not the first time questions have been raised about whether clubs had met the letter — and the spirit — of the Rooney Rule. In the first year of the rule, Goodell’s predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, fined former Detroit Lions general manager Matt Millen $200,000 for “failing to discharge his duties” under the requirement.

It seemed more than enough anecdotal evidence existed for Goodell to at least probe how the Redskins and Seahawks reached their decisions. Instead, he punted.

So much progress has been made, though, that there was an argument Goodell would have risked offending owners, who could push to eliminate the rule, if he fined the Seahawks and Redskins.

An honor code is supposed to exist among the commissioner’s office, the Fritz Pollard Alliance and teams. The expectation is that minority candidates will receive legitimate consideration. Taking people at their word, though, has not always worked.

If teams were required to transcribe their interviews and make them available to the commissioner’s office and the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the people in charge of compliance would know for a fact that interviews occurred and could judge for themselves whether they were sufficient.

Minorities who have been granted interviews likely are reluctant to criticize teams, even if they had bad experiences, for fear of being denied future opportunities. Why not put it all on paper to be reviewed by the appropriate people?

“That’s a very interesting proposal,” Duru said. “A lot of people have spent time examining the rule and ways to strengthen it, and I don’t think anyone has come up with that one.”

There are eight minority head coaches and five minority general managers — the most in NFL history. The NFL, however, has 32 teams, and 78 percent of its players are African American. Obviously, the Rooney Rule has not completely leveled the field in the NFL.

There are long-standing societal factors that have contributed to minorities being historically underrepresented in decision-making roles, and change usually occurs slowly. But some forward-thinking people took a significant step in pushing for creation of the Rooney Rule. Now it’s time to give it more teeth.

 
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