The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How the NFL fumbled the battle for equal opportunity in coaching

Former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores during an NFL football game against the New England Patriots on Jan. 9 in Miami Gardens, Fla. (Wilfredo Lee/AP, File)

Cyrus Mehri is a civil rights attorney based in Washington, D.C.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2002, I started my Monday like I always do: reading the sports section of the paper.

I was livid when I learned the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had fired head coach Tony Dungy despite making the playoffs four out of six years. Just days earlier, the Minnesota Vikings had terminated their head coach, Dennis Green, after he made the playoffs eight out of 10 years. These two coaches, both Black, were consistent winners. Their terminations exemplified the “last hired, first fired” phenomenon familiar to Black executives across America. With Green and Dungy ousted, Herman Edwards was the last Black head coach standing.

That morning, pulling from my experience as a civil rights lawyer, I came up with the idea of using statistics to illustrate the double standard in the NFL’s hiring practices. I teamed up with attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. to enlist noted labor economist Janice Madden, who conducted a statistical study of NFL head coach win-loss records by race. The numbers showed that Black head coaches performed better than their White counterparts by going to the playoffs twice as often but were hired less frequently.

We confronted the NFL with a report that detailed the racial inequities in coaching. The report included a “Fair Competition Resolution,” the foundation of what would eventually become the NFL’s Rooney Rule. The rule — named after Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who used inclusive hiring practices throughout his career — requires that NFL teams conduct in-person interviews with a diverse slate of candidates when hiring head coaches and general managers.

Progress followed. At one point, nearly half the league’s teams had a head coach or general manager of color. Nothing symbolized that progress more than the 2007 Super Bowl, when Dungy and Lovie Smith became the first Black head coaches to compete for the championship. Since 2007, 10 NFL teams have reached the Super Bowl led by a head coach or general manager of color.

The power of diversity was winning. A 2019 poll of NFL fans found that while NFL fans were divided on just about every racial issue, nearly 70 percent supported the Rooney Rule, with only about 10 percent strongly opposed. The Rooney Rule won over Americans because it advocates for a simple, fundamental value: fair competition.

Fast forward to Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2022. After Dave Culley’s and Brian Flores’s inexplicable ousters by the Houston Texans and Miami Dolphins, respectively, the NFL now has just one Black head coach, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers. What happened?

Superficial observers blame the backslide on the Rooney Rule, but the statistics before and after the rule’s enactment prove it worked. And the Rooney Rule has been strengthened over time, now requiring that NFL club owners interview multiple diverse candidates. The league has also incentivized diverse talent pipelines, such as by giving draft choices to clubs that develop a coach of color who becomes a head coach.

Flores’s lawsuit against the NFL and its teams, alleging discrimination against coaches of color, shows that the issue isn’t with the Rooney Rule, it’s with accountability. (The NFL said in a statement that the allegations are “without merit.”) The Rooney Rule depends on club owners genuinely interviewing a diverse slate of candidates. In 2003, the first year of the Rooney Rule, the Detroit Lions hired a White coach after inviting Black coaches to “see the facilities.” Not one Black coach accepted the clearly empty offer. As advocates of the Rooney Rule, we told the NFL that if they didn’t act, they were torpedoing equal opportunity efforts. The league eventually fined Lions President Matt Millen $200,000. It sent a loud message that the rule would be enforced. We also created the Fritz Pollard Alliance to champion the cause of minorities throughout the league.

But in 2017, the Oakland Raiders selected a White head coach, Jon Gruden, before holding sham interviews with Black candidates. The Fritz Pollard Alliance urged the league to fine the Raidersowner just as they had fined the Lions president 14 years earlier. But the NFL refused, suggesting that it was no longer taking equal opportunity efforts seriously. The number of Black head coaches has since plummeted, while frustration among Black coaches is sky high.

Now Flores alleges that the New York Giants had already chosen a White coach before his interview. The Giants say that’s “false,” but if what Flores alleges is true, the Giants did exactly what the Raiders did. And why wouldn’t they, if breaking the Rooney Rule has no consequences? With little accountability, the progress made over the course of a generation unraveled.

With Flores’s lawsuit, the NFL faces another fork in the road. The league must make clear to teams that equal opportunity policies, including the Rooney Rule, will be enforced. A bright young coach is possibly sacrificing his career to take a stand against racial bias. The very least we can do as a country is to uphold the value of fair competition. There is no doubt in my mind that if the NFL does what’s right, it will achieve new success in the struggle for equal opportunity.