Tweaking the NFL’s Rooney Rule Is Not Enough

The Rooney Rule has always been a case study in the NFL “telling on itself.” In a league that is made up of roughly 75 percent Black Americans, this multibillion-dollar operation has needed to have a special rule just to get its almost entirely all-white franchise owners to interview candidates of color for head coaching positions. (Shahid Khan of the Jacksonville Jaguars is the only majority NFL owner who is not white. Given that the Jaguars are barely an NFL team, this almost doesn’t count.)

The Rooney Rule requires NFL teams to interview nonwhite candidates for head coach positions in the league. Without the Rooney Rule, eminently qualified coaches of color would not even get into the room. Yet even with the Rooney Rule, we have not seen measurable progress. It has led to more interviews, but they come across like an impatient billionaire checking a box on a to-do list, rather than a serious evaluation.

Currently there are only three full-time Black head coaches in the league: Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, Miami’s Brian Flores, and the Los Angeles Chargers’ Anthony Lynn, with Romeo Crennel of the Houston Texans currently playing that role in an interim capacity. Ron Rivera, who is of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent, coaches the Washington Football Team. These are similar to the numbers when the Rooney Rule was first initiated two decades ago. (There are only two Black general managers, further compounding the problem.) Despite a crew of topflight assistants, Black head coaches don’t get the opportunities at the big job, and it’s a stain on a league that is still reckoning with how to look more “woke” in the aftermath of the summer’s protests following the police murder of George Floyd.

Yet while the league’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, has issued a flurry of statements about the NFL’s commitment to “fighting racism” (whatever that means), and even stated his regrets about the way it handled exiled quarterback Colin Kaepernick, we have not seen change where it matters. Slogans written on a field are thin gruel compared to actually hiring qualified people of color.

Instead, we have a chronic system of nepotism that rewards the sons of established coaches at the expense not only of qualified candidates but also of teams winning games. How else to explain the firing of Jim Caldwell of the Detroit Lions because of management impatience over a 9-7 record, when his replacement, Matt Patricia, gets years to prove his ineptitude, with the mere thought of going 9-7 a pipe dream? How else to explain why Eric Bieniemy, the offensive coordinator for the high-powered Kansas City Chiefs, is still toiling as an assistant? It’s an embarrassment.

The latest effort to confront this is a new proposal approved by the franchise owners during the past week. In this tinkering with the Rooney Rule, teams would be compensated with draft picks if a “minority” assistant coach is hired by another team. Teams could receive two third-round draft picks, should they lose one of these assistant hires. The owners think that this could finally be the step that encourages the building of a pipeline of assistants and potential head coaching hires.

In a statement to reporters, NFL Commissioner Goodell said,

I think that’s how we’ve made progress over the past several years. It’s continually keeping a focus on this, adapting, looking to see what areas we can improve on, and that constant evolution of improvement, to try to make sure we’re doing everything appropriate to give minorities an opportunity to advance in the head coaching ranks or the coaching ranks in general, in personnel and other football areas, to well beyond that. To the people at the league office here, to club levels, this is an important initiative of the NFL.

The problem is that there already are qualified assistants who aren’t getting hired, so why would this new incentivized scenario necessarily change anything? It’s far more likely that it will result in more assistant coaches of color—a positive—but no real change in terms of who gets the top jobs. The NFL and Goodell are still looking at this like they have a hiring problem or a personnel problem, when the reality is that they have a racism problem. That is not going to end with changes to the rules. It will end when players are more vocal about the absence of opportunities available to them upon retirement. It will end when fans rebel against inferior white coaches that keep their teams consigned to mediocrity. It will end—hopefully—with this generation of owners who see whiteness as an unspoken part of what makes a successful head coach.

In other words, struggle will end the racist hiring practices, not new rules written by the same people who will inevitably flout them.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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