With the rise of young Black quarterbacks in the NFL, there seems to be a changing of the guard in the league. Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs; Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans; Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks; and Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens have all combined their gridiron dexterity, significant arm-strength, and unbridled athleticism to catapult themselves into superstars who are redefining the quarterback position.
But, as the old adage goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. There’s a new era of Black QBs being ushered in. But when it comes time for the NFL tto hire new coaches to curate strategizes for the quarterbacks and the rest of the rosters, the league is still keeping it extremely white. This offseason, The Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, and the Carolina Panthers fired white coaches and then replaced them with new white coaches. The Giants hired Patriots wide receivers coach Joe Judge as their new head coach, despite having a resume that paper-thin. This comes as Eric Bieniemy, the innovative offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs, and one of the main reasons for the phenomenal success of Mahomes, wasn’t hired as a head coach for the second consecutive year.
When it comes to hiring Black coaches, the NFL keeps moving the goalposts.
As of now, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Anthony Lynn of the Los Angeles Chargers, and Brian Flores of the Miami Dolphins are the only Black coaches in the NFL. This, despite the fact that there is a rule in place to prevent this kind of problem.
Established in 2003, The Rooney Rule (Named after Dan Rooney, the former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers who also chaired the league’s diversity committee), is a National Football League policy that requires each team to interview minority candidates — based on ethnicity — for head coaching openings. The formation of the policy came as a result of the firing of two African American coaches, Tony Dungy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who at the time of his dismissal had a winning record, and Dennis Green of the Minnesota Vikings, who had his first losing season in a ten-year tenure with the team.
Because of the public outcry, high-powered civil rights attorneys Johnnie Cohran and Cyrus Mehri released a study entitled Black Coaches in the National Football League: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities, revealing that Black head coaches, even with higher winning percentages of games played, were less likely to be hired and more likely to be fired than their white counterparts. Not only do Black coaches have a slim chance to be hired but a recent study has shown that Black coaches are rarely considered again as viable candidates once they have been released from other assignments, unlike their white contemporaries who are often rehired and kept their jobs even with mediocre results.
Taking on the topic head-on, ESPN NFL analyst Dominque Foxworth and High Noon co-host Bomani Jones have vehemently lambasted the NFL’s lack of hiring Black coaches, equating it with the ineptness of the Rooney Rule as currently constructed and the blatant racism that fuels its hypocrisy.
When the Rooney Rule was implemented in 2003 it was designed to ensure that all teams would interview a person of color for their open positions. Almost 20 years later, the Rooney Rule, which is now on life-support, is no more than an exercise in futility for qualified Black candidates. For the majority of white owners, the Rooney Rule is just another pathway to do what they have always done: Hire white coaches. There is an array of issues that continue to plague the league — including its blackballing of Colin Kapernick — right at the top is how the NFL has handled Black coaches. The NFL keeps fumbling.
Champions of the Rooney Rule will applaud and celebrate the modest and incremental strides that have been made by Black coaches since its inception. But if the NFL will courageously examine its large and looming legacy of racial discrimination against Black coaches in a concise and progressive fashion, they would come to one conclusion: the Rooney Rule must be abolished.
Here are eight reasons why the NFL should go ahead and kill the Rooney Rule.
The catch-22 of the Rooney Rule is that it doesn’t guarantee that NFL owners would hire Black coaches. The Rooney Rule was never about forcing an owner to hire a minority candidate. It was about mandating owners to consider qualified, diverse candidates who were often ignored before picking the next coach. But even though the league can mandate at least one interview of a minority candidate, in the meritocracy of the NFL, the league can never force the owner’s hands to hire Black coaches.
Out of the plethora of candidates who come equipped with white privilege when they walk into league offices, interviewing just one minority person is entirely too small a sample size in the hiring enterprise. Because the Rooney Rule requires only one interview of a minority before a new hire is solidified, the majority of NFL owners have done the bare minimum by never considering more than one minority in the process.
There is no mechanism in place in the Rooney Rule that calls for reporting on the interview process when Black candidates are being vetted. NFL teams are not required to provide detailed transcripts, audio recordings, video, or anything of the sort as evidence that a thorough, transparent interview took place. Because of this loophole in the systems, NFL teams are not held accountable for the ways in which they handle their interview procedures.
Initially, the Rooney Rule was marketed as a way to bring a more diverse representation of coaches, specifically African American candidates, to finally have a seat at the table. Fast forward 20 years later, the NFL has only four coaches of color and only one GM. Arguably, the greatest success of the rule was in 2011 and 2017 when the league boasted a record eight minority head coaches. Instead of the rule evolving and creating transformation as leaders on the sidelines, there has been a severe retrogression where talented, Black coaching candidates are making an exodus to the collegiate ranks due to lack of opportunities in the NFL.
According to reports from last season, the NFL grossed around $55 billion dollars in revenue. Economically speaking, the league is doing better than ever despite the central fact that qualified African Americans are routinely shut out of head coaching positions. Another deficiency in the Rooney Rule is that there are no consequences, financial or otherwise, for NFL teams for continuing the practices of de facto racial discrimination in its lack of hiring Black coaches. The wheels of the “good ole’ boy” system keeps rolling on.
While the NFL hasn’t placed a quota system on hiring Black coaches, the Rooney Rule has inadvertently created another quota system where teams interview just one minority candidate in order to check the box that they’ve complied with the policy. Since the inception of the rule, rumors have engulfed the NFL that Black candidates were only interviewed for compliance purposes. One example that warranted criticism was when the Philadelphia Eagles hired Doug Pederson after interviewing Duce Staley, a former Philadelphia player and assistant coach on the team. Interestingly, Staley had never held a coordinator position and was only an assistant coach for three seasons. It’s easy to detect why the Eagles were accused of circumventing the process by interviewing an in-house, minority candidate who obviously lacked the experience to be a head coach.
Both offensive and defensive coordinators have the most responsibilities outside of the head coach on NFL teams. Coordinators who have success are often the leading candidates for head coach positions when they become available. A fundamental flaw of the Rooney Rule is that it doesn’t require interview opportunities for coordinator jobs. Some have argued that if there were more coordinators of color in the pipeline, more minority candidates would have a greater chance at head coaching positions. The Rooney Rule fails to address this issue.
The elephant in the NFL room is simply this: The league has a historical legacy of being a racist entity. It’s more than perception but a matter of fact. While the NFL is 70 percent Black, it has dragged behind the NBA and MLB when it comes to racial progress in regards to players, coaches, and executives.
Fritz Pollard became the first Black coach in the history of the NFL in its embryonic period in the 1920s. After his tenure, the next minority hired was Tim Flores, of Hispanic descent, in 1979 by the Oakland Raiders over fifty years later. Art Shell became the first Black coach of the NFL’s modern era when he took over the reins of the Los Angeles Raiders in 1989. Furthermore, when it comes to tracking the NFL’s track record on giving minorities executive opportunities, the narrative is even bleaker.
The Rooney Rule was may have been viewed as a step in the right direction but it did not properly assess the long arc of white supremacy in America, complicit and implicit bias, and the complex and multifaceted ways that racism is experienced, even in the realm of professional football.
Rashad Grove is a writer from NJ whose work has appeared on BET, Billboard, MTV News, Okayplayer, High Snobiety, Medium, Revolt TV, The Source Magazine, and others. You can follow him at @thegroveness for all of his greatness.
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