Over the past several weeks, the NFL and its Rooney Rule –- which requires that every NFL team interview at least one candidate of color during any head coach search –- have taken a fierce beating in the press. Commentators of all stripes have given the league grief:
"The Rule creates 'sham' interviews."
"The Rule is unnecessary."
"The Rule is unfair."
They can say what they want. Here’s what the Rule really is: the most effective equal opportunity initiative that any American professional sports league has launched in decades. And today, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, is a good day to assess it, because nine years ago, on what would have been Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 73rd birthday, the Rooney Rule was conceived.
On that day, football fans across the country opened their morning papers to see that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had fired their head coach, Tony Dungy. And the intellectually honest among them knew the firing was unjust. By any measure, the pre-Dungy Bucs were pathetic. They’d had only three winning seasons in franchise history and they’d not been to the playoffs in 13 years, but Dungy (pictured below with Lovie Smith of the Bears at Super Bowl XLI, the first NFL championship game with two African American head coaches)
quickly transformed them. In Dungy’s second season, the Bucs made the playoffs. In his fourth season, they went to the NFC Championship and almost won it. After two more consecutive playoff seasons, Dungy was fired, leaving the NFL with only one head coach of color.
Dungy had toiled for 16 years as an assistant coach before ascending to the Bucs head coaching position, and after making success in Tampa Bay an expectation rather than an aberration, he got the axe. He was the last hired and the first fired despite being an excellent head coach, making him the embodiment of the African American NFL head coaching experience at the time.
An employment discrimination lawyer in Washington, D.C., named Cyrus Mehri was among the discontented upon reading of Dungy’s ouster, and he decided that day that he would press the NFL for change. Several months later, he and Johnnie Cochran issued a report presenting statistical evidence of African American coaching success in the NFL and demanded that the NFL require its teams to interview at least one candidate of color before hiring a head coach. After a litigation threat and a fair bit of posturing on both sides, the tension began to wane, discussions became increasingly productive, and the NFL’s decision makers, well aware of the league’s reputation as a hidebound old-boy network but insistent that the reputation was undeserved, decided to give it a shot.
The interviewing procedure proposed by these outsiders was, by everyone’s assessment, suboptimal, but for years the league had relied on internal efforts to diversify their head coaching ranks, and none of them had worked.
In 1979, the league had implemented the Black Coaches Visitation Program, which involved inviting coaches from historically black colleges and universities into NFL training camps to familiarize those coaches with the NFL game and to familiarize NFL owners and general managers with those coaches. And in the 1980's, the league adopted and broadened a minority internship program that then-San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh had initiated. Both programs spurred a modest increase in the numbers of assistant coaches of color in the NFL. But neither did much to crack the glass ceiling at the top of the coaching hierarchy.
More recently, league officials invited a consulting firm, Russell Reynolds Associates, to meet with the league's owners and emphasize the bottom-line business benefits of slower, more deliberative head coaching searches designed to consider larger and more diverse candidate pools. The result? The same old largely colorless post-season head-coaching carousel.
So, in the face of familiar attacks –- "The Rule will create 'sham' interviews." "The Rule is unnecessary." "The Rule will be unfair." –- the NFL implemented the Rooney Rule. And after decades of virtual head coaching homogeneity, the Rooney Rule is the one thing that has worked in providing coaches of color head coaching opportunities in the NFL. Right now, the NFL has seven head coaches of color, and if Hue Jackson gets the
Raiders’ head coaching position, which seems likely, there will be an all-time high of eight.
Of course, the Rule is not perfect. It’s a process-oriented rule intended to foster an atmosphere in which equal opportunity can flourish. The Rule can’t force an owner to seriously consider a candidate of color, and the Rule is therefore easily circumvented by owners unwilling or unable to think broadly about potential hires. So, "sham" interviews do exist, and coaches of color are sometimes “afterthoughts” in head coaching searches. We’ve learned that these are costs of a process-oriented rule. But let’s see what else we’ve learned over the course of the Rule’s life thus far:
Coaches of color, given the opportunity, have succeeded
The past four Super Bowls featured four head coaches of color, two of the past five NFL Coach of the Year Award recipients are head coaches of color, and the six head coaches of color who began the 2010 season posted a combined regular-season record of 52-43 and produced three playoff teams, two of which will play for conference championships this coming weekend.
The "afterthought" interviewee sometimes gets the job
Who honestly thought Mike Tomlin would beat out the Steelers' internal candidates, Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt, for Pittsburgh’s head coaching job in 2007? Two years and one Super Bowl championship
later, the Steelers' commitment to expanding their search beyond the obvious candidates (they, in fact, interviewed two candidates of color that year) seems to have worked out quite nicely for both the organization and the "afterthought" interviewee.
A few years before the Steelers hire and just after the Rooney Rule was enacted, the Cincinnati Bengals: (1) had never in 35 years as a franchise interviewed a person of color for offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, or head coach; (2) reportedly desired a stern disciplinarian after firing player-friendly Dick LeBeau; and (3) seemed homed in on Disciplinarian-in-Chief Tom Coughlin. But with the Rule in place, they interviewed Marvin Lewis who, despite constructing record-breaking defenses as a heralded defensive coordinator, had been consistently overlooked for head coaching positions. Lewis won the job, has since won two AFC North Division titles (no minor feat considering the limited resources Cincinnati’s management extends its head coaches), and is among the league’s most respected head coaches.
In the Rule’s absence, Lewis would not likely have gotten the Bengals job and Tomlin has admitted publicly that he wouldn’t have gotten the Steelers job. They didn’t begin as their respective teams' top candidates, but once they got in the door, they dazzled their interviewers.
Of course, the "afterthought" interviewee often doesn’t get the job, but ...
The "afterthought" interviewee sometimes gets a subsequent job
For years, Leslie Frazier and Ron Rivera have been trotted out as examples of the Rooney Rule gone wrong: Coaches who are interviewed and quickly disregarded year after year because of the Rooney Rule process. Maybe some of their previous head coaching interviews were shams and maybe not. But those interviews helped prepare Frazier and Rivera for subsequent interviews and solidified them in the minds of many owners as legitimate head coaching prospects, and both are now head coaches.
I’m sure those unsuccessful interviews were no barrel of laughs for either man, but do you think either would trade places with Emmitt Thomas, Sherman Lewis, or any of the other exceptional assistant coaches of color who were in their prime before the Rooney Rule came to be and who barely even sniffed permanent NFL head coaching opportunities? I doubt it.
The Rule has worked. It"s undeniable. Is the Rule still necessary? Absolutely. Without the Rule, the old boy network, which long dominated NFL head coach hiring and which still remains a part of NFL culture, could well return to the fore. Even assuming away that possibility, although seven head coaches of color is certainly an improvement over the state of things nine years ago today, seven out of a possible 32 remains quite low in
a League in which 70 percent of the players are of color. I’m not suggesting there is a golden percentage of head coaches of color at which the Rule will no longer be necessary, but if there were, that golden percentage would certainly not be 21 percent.
Like anything, the Rooney Rule should and will evolve, and we can talk about how it could be improved. And as we talk, you can choose to give the NFL grief.
But I’ll choose to give it credit.
-- N. Jeremi Duru, a law professor at Temple University, is the author of "Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL."