Rooney Rule, narrow in purview, fails to diversify NFL

Mike Tomlin has coached the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2007, leading the team to a Super Bowl ring in 2009. He is one of just four NFL coaches of color. Courtesy of Brook Ward via Flickr.

Another NFL season has come and gone. 31 teams which are not the Kansas City Chiefs are already reflecting on why they did not win the Super Bowl, a type of self searching which leads to more than a few coaches losing their jobs. This year, five of the 32 NFL teams fired their head coach and hired replacements.

But among the five head coaches hired this month alone, there was a startling trend: None of them are Black, and only one of them is a person of color. Unfortunately, this trend is not new—people of color simply are not given as many head coaching and front office opportunities as their white counterparts.

Of the 32 NFL head coaches currently employed, only four are men of color (Mike Tomlin, Brian Flores, Anthony Lynn and Ron Rivera of the Steelers, Dolphins, Chargers and Redskins respectively). And looking to the front office, only 6.3 percent of GMs are people of color as of 2019.

Keep in mind, this is a league where over 70 percent of the players are people of color, the vast majority of them black. Clearly, non-white men are not being given equal consideration to be head coaches and executives in the NFL.

The NFL has been aware of its diversity issue for a long time. The Rooney Rule, which “mandates that an NFL team must interview at least one minority candidate for these jobs,” was implemented in 2003 (The Undefeated, “Rethinking the Rooney Rule,” 05.20.2016). The Rule is named for Dan Rooney, the former US ambassador to Ireland, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and head of the league’s diversity committee. Rooney was also a white man; I invite you to ponder the irony contained in that fact

In any case, the purpose of the rule is to put qualified candidates of color on the radar of NFL teams who normally wouldn’t otherwise consider them. However, as the numbers show, this solution falls short.

Since the Rooney rule was implemented in 2003, 113 NFL head coaches have been hired (not including interim coaches). Only 23 of them have been people of color (The Undefeated, “NFL Hires in the Rooney Rule Era,” 01.10.2019). That is 20.4 percent in a league where almost three quarters of the players are people of color. So why has the Rooney Rule failed to launch meaningful change?

The Rooney Rule makes a lot of sense in spirit, but in practice it can essentially be ignored since it refers only to hiring procedure and not the hiring itself. Teams need only interview a single minority candidate, so many of them probably get their one interview out of the way quickly, check off the box and then start their “real” search.

When people think of racism in the workplace, they don’t immediately think of an industry in which people of color constitute the vast majority of the workforce and are paid millions of dollars a year. But yes, it exists even for the wealthy, famous athletes supposedly at the top of the social ladder Just because NFL players make a lot of money doesn’t mean the NFL is an equitable league.

NFL teams are run by their owners. The owner is the person who quite literally bought the team (or their parents or grandparents did). The NFL has existed since the 1930s. Unsurprisingly, most of the owners are old white men. They can and often do make every decision about their team — including who to hire and fire.

Players have very little power off of the field. The owners running the NFL view the players as a necessity to make the teams money, not as a voice in the league. Sometimes owners admit to this dynamic themselves, like when Texans owner Robert McNair complained, “we can’t have the inmates running the prison” in reference to players kneeling for the National Anthem. (Bleacher Report, “Texans Owner Bob McNair on Protests: ‘We Can’t Have Inmates Running the Prison,'” 10.27.2017).

This is worsened by the fact that the NFL, unlike the NBA and MLB, does not guarantee the contracts of its players. This means that a player could sign a one-year “contract” for $5 million, but if they get hurt before the season starts, or they do something their bosses don’t like (for example, kneeling during the anthem) the teams can void those contracts and deny the player whatever salary remains (meaning if you only played one game that season, then they only have to pay you one-sixteenth of the contract).

The players are not granted this same freedom, however. If a player decides they don’t like working for a team, they can quit, but then they can’t sign with any other team until the length of their contract has passed (and they don’t collect any of that money while they are waiting to be eligible for another team).

This power structure has led many athletes to voice concerns. Richard Sherman, a cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers, called it “the old plantation mentality” (The Washington Post, “Richard Sherman says Jerry Jones has an ‘old plantation mentality’ about anthem policy,” 07.30.2018).

I am not saying that the team owners have conspired to not hire any head
coaches or GMs of color; the issue here is the culture. The wealthy white people in charge essentially inherited organizations that had no people of color in positions of power, and have not actively attempted to increase the hiring of racial minorities. We all know that getting a job has everything to do with who you know.

The real problem in the NFL is that the people in charge of hiring are all part of an old boys club that is made almost entirely of white men.

Recently, a few ideas have circulated about how to rework the Rooney Rule. One is expanding it to include the hiring process for assistant coaches, who are often the ones tapped for head coaching positions. Another idea is to publicly release the transcripts of all the interviews to ensure that the teams are taking all candidates’ interviews seriously.

I think both of these are good starts, but the reality is that if the front offices of NFL teams are going to reflect the demographics of the rest of the industry, it’s going to take more affirmative measures. We aren’t just talking about implementing a superficial rule, we are talking about changing the whole culture in the NFL.

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