The NFL Grapples with the Fact That the Rooney Rule Has Become a Joke

Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores during a game against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, La., August 29, 2019. (Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports)

Art Shell became the first black head coach in the National Football League in 1989, in a league where African Americans have made up a majority of players since at least the 1970s. In 2002, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fired Tony Dungy, and the Minnesota Vikings fired Dennis Green, two black head coaches who had achieved some success with those franchises. African-American political leaders contended that black coaches were getting fewer opportunities to coach than they deserved, and when they did, they were dismissed more quickly.

In 2003, the NFL adopted the “Rooney Rule,” named after the late Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney. The Rooney Rule requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate when they have an opening for head coach or general manager positions. No team was required to hire any minority candidates; the aim was just to make sure teams didn’t overlook qualified but lesser-known minority candidates for those jobs.

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Last year, eight teams hired a new coach, but only one of them was a minority, Brian Flores of the Miami Dolphins. This year, four teams have hired new coaches — three white coaches and Ron Rivera, who is of Puerto Rican heritage — and there’s considerably louder grumbling that the Rooney rule has become a fig leaf and something of a joke. There is widespread belief that many team owners have a strong sense of who they want to hire even before the old coach is fired, and the “Rooney Rule” candidates are brought in for simply pro forma interviews, with no real shot at getting the job.

Jim Trotter, a correspondent for NFL Network — which is owned by the league — shared a text from an unnamed black NFL assistant coach: “NFL has finally shown it’s not the place for black men to advance. It’s ridiculous, it’s disgusting. We can sell tickets and make plays, but we can’t lead.”

ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith offered a livid rant — even by his impassioned standards — declaring that, “Black men are not being treated fairly in the National Football League! Somebody’s got to say it! . . . This Rooney rule is bogus, clearly, because it is being bypassed!”

When an NFL team needs a new head coach, it usually means the previous one didn’t work out and the team had a lousy season, maybe several lousy seasons in a row. The owner is nervous and frustrated and is probably getting beat up in the sports pages. He wants a quick fix, a new coach that will generate buzz and give fans a sense of optimism.

The two most common paths are to go with a “proven winner” — some former head coach who’s been to the Super Bowl, like the Redskins did with Rivera and the Dallas Cowboys did with Mike McCarthy — or to go with the next hot young coach, either a successful offensive or defensive coordinator or college coach, like the Carolina Panthers did with former Baylor coach Matt Rhule. (Sean McVay’s success with the Los Angeles Rams spurred a lot of teams to look for the next hot young genius strategist.) There are probably plenty of teams who would love to hire a black head coach with a Super Bowl ring and sterling reputation like Tony Dungy, but he’s happy as a television analyst right now. Probably the next closest thing to Dungy is Jim Caldwell, who got the Colts to the Super Bowl, and who interviewed with the Browns, Cardinals, and Jets last year.

The Kansas City Chiefs have had an explosive offense for the past two years, and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy would seem like a strong candidate. Yet Bieniemy interviewed for four openings last year and three more this cycle; only the Cleveland Browns are still looking for a coach. Bieniemy and Caldwell probably rank highest on the “hey, that guy’s pretty good, why hasn’t anyone hired him yet?” list. What’s more, some teams pick retreads who weren’t that good the first time around (COUGHadamgaseCOUGH) — leaving the impression that there’s some sort of old boys network insuring that the same old faces stay in the top coaching spots.

It would not take much for owners to create the impression that minority candidates are at least getting serious consideration. They could start by interviewing more minority candidates than the one that the Rooney Rule requires, and not just a familiar name like former Bengal head coach Marvin Lewis. Younger and lesser known coaches would at least benefit more from going through the interview process and knowing what to expect the next time they’re interviewed. That would at least mitigate the sense that this is all a pro forma, check-the-box exercise. But the biggest and most useful step would be for owners to have a genuinely open mind during the selection process. While owners can’t control what gets leaked, stories that declare “owner X really wants coach Y” help fuel the perception that the head coach search was over before it began.

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