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NFL toughens its Rooney Rule standards for interviewing head coaching candidates

There were questions raised about whether the Raiders complied with the Rooney Rule before hiring Jon Gruden as their coach. (AP Photo/D. Ross Cameron)

IRVING, Tex. — The NFL has toughened its standards on a rule that requires teams with head coaching vacancies to interview at least one minority candidate.

The new standards come in apparent response to accusations of teams, including the Oakland Raiders during the last hiring cycle, circumventing the Rooney Rule by interviewing minority candidates not deemed to be legitimate contenders to land the job.

Under the revisions announced by the league Wednesday at an owners’ meeting at a Dallas-area hotel, a team with a head coaching vacancy must interview at least one minority candidate from outside its organization or from the list of recommended candidates compiled by the NFL’s advisory board.

Previously, the rule said only that at least one minority candidate needed to be interviewed, without further specifications.

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The NFL denied that the changes were made specifically in response to the coaching search of the Raiders or any other team.

“Our focus was simply: How do we make the Rooney Rule better?” said Robert Gulliver, the league executive in charge of human resources.

The NFL concluded in January that the Raiders had complied with the Rooney Rule when they hired Jon Gruden as their coach and signed him to a 10-year contract estimated to be worth about $100 million. The Raiders said they complied with the rule — named for late Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, the former chairman of the league’s workplace diversity committee — by interviewing their own tight ends coach, Bobby Johnson, and Southern Cal offensive coordinator Tee Martin.

But some outside observers said they believed that the Raiders had violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the Rooney Rule, with owner Mark Davis only focused on pursuing Gruden. The Fritz Pollard Alliance, the diversity group that works closely with the league on its minority hiring practices, said it believed that Davis and the Raiders had violated the rule.

Similar allegations have been made about the head coaching or general manager searches of other teams over the years. The Rooney Rule also applies to general manager vacancies.

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The new standards announced Wednesday also say that if a team’s top decision-maker, such as the owner, is involved in the interviewing and hiring process at the outset, that top decision-maker must remain involved in the process through its conclusion. So a team, for instance, could not have its owner involved in interviewing certain candidates while not participating in any interviews with minority candidates.

Teams also are to maintain complete records of the interviewing process. They are encouraged but not required to interview multiple minority candidates.

The league reasserted that teams will be disciplined for any violations of the rule.

“If there is noncompliance, there will be discipline,” Gulliver said.

“These Rooney Rule enhancements are a breakthrough,” Harry Carson, the group’s executive director, said in a written statement. “After last season’s hiring cycle, something had to be done. These enhancements should strengthen the rule and ensure that it applies as intended and truly gives candidates of color a fair chance.”

John Wooten, the diversity group’s chairman, said the Fritz Pollard Alliance had been in discussions with the league since February about strengthening the rule.

“The Rooney Rule has done a lot for equity and fairness in this League, but at times clubs have fallen short of the commitment they made when instituting it,” Wooten said in a written statement. “We look forward to robust compliance of the Rooney Rule going forward and to full equal opportunity for all in the NFL.”

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