Why the conversation around NFL’s Rooney Rule needs to change

NFL insider Steve Wyche joins Arash Madani to dissect NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s comments that clearly something has to change with respect to the league’s lack of minority head coaches and interviews for these roles.

With the Cleveland Browns’ hiring of Kevin Stefanski ending the 2020 coaching carousel, a disturbing trend has continued in the NFL: Black head coaches are scarce, and that trend doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon.

It’s a black eye on a league that, as it’s celebrating its 100th year, has only four minority head coaches, and only three of those are African American. As a result, the Rooney Rule has come back under scrutiny after not one of this off-season’s head-coach openings was filled by a black candidate. It’s obvious the Rooney Rule isn’t working, and it seems we’re having this same conversation at this time each and every year.

But how can it be fixed? It may be less about fixing the rule and more about changing the conversation around it.

Implemented in 2003, the Rooney Rule states that NFL teams must interview at least one minority candidate for NFL head-coaching and senior-football-operations openings. The rule was established to address the fact that there were just three black head coaches across the league following the 2002 season. Named after Dan Rooney, the former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and chairman of the NFL’s diversity committee, the rule is an affirmative-action measure designed to give black coaching and front-office candidates more exposure and opportunities.

Seventeen years later, there are still just three black head coaches in the league.

The Rooney Rule’s intentions are good, but it hasn’t been enough to force change. I’ve written before about some tweaks that could enhance its effectiveness, but ultimately the messaging around the issue is what needs an overhaul.

So how do we move the conversation forward? Rather than discussing ways to adjust or fix the rule, the argument around it should be about competency, not meritocracy. Simply put, what teams are doing when they don’t vet or strongly consider all candidates is handing a competitive advantage to their rivals.

Eric Bieniemy is the offensive coordinator of the Super Bowl–bound Kansas City Chiefs, yet Bieniemy still hasn’t landed a head-coaching job despite being a legitimate candidate for two off-seasons.

In the past, being the offensive coordinator of the Chiefs alongside Andy Reid has been a springboard to further employment. Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson and Chicago Bears coach Matt Nagy have both parlayed their work with Reid into successful promotions. However, that legacy has come to a halt at Bieniemy, whom Reid has campaigned for as an NFL head coach.

Being tied to the New England Patriots network has also proven to be a valuable asset for potential NFL head coaches. See Houston’s Bill O’Brien, Detroit’s Matt Patricia, Tennessee’s Mike Vrabel and, most recently, New York Giants new head coach Joe Judge. Former Patriots defensive play-caller Brian Flores was the only black head coach hired last off-season, but his appointment was made by the league’s only black GM in Miami Dolphins exec Chris Grier.

It’s problematic that, of the NFL’s three black head coaches, one was given a job by the Rooney family (Mike Tomlin) and another was hired by a black general manager (Flores). From the outside looking in, it appears only some NFL franchises are motivated to cast their net wide enough to consider black candidates.

Tomlin has been the coach of the Steelers since 2007. Why don’t we see coaches of his tree being given an opportunity like with Reid or Belichick? Why haven’t people said, “We need to find the next Mike Tomlin,” like with Sean McVay?

Tomlin is the Rooney Rule’s greatest victory, as he won the job as a long shot because he got the opportunity to interview, but the pipeline has ended with him and progress has come to an abrupt stop.

And it’s not just about getting an initial opportunity. It’s about having an equal opportunity the second time around. If you are Raheem Morris or Leslie Frazier, you seemingly only get one shot.

In 2016, I spoke to Marvin Lewis, the longest-tenured black coach in North American sports when he ended his run with the Cincinnati Bengals. We discussed the plight of the black NFL coach. His fear was that, in a copycat league, black coaches haven’t been the hot trend.

“There are qualified people like Perry Fewell,” Lewis said at the time. “The Giants are in the Super Bowl and Perry Fewell is a hot item. Then all of a sudden, he’s not. Perry’s the same coach. He’s probably a better coach! A few years ago, Tim Lewis was a head-coaching candidate, and then all of a sudden, he’s not. There are a lot of guys who have been coordinators in the league on successful teams that should be getting a chance to interview, but if their team momentarily goes down, they are forgotten. That coach is just as qualified, but the public perception changes and then ownership isn’t willing to walk in with that guy.”

The issue used to be that black coaches weren’t qualified. They weren’t coordinators – until they were. Then they weren’t offensive coordinators – until they were. Then they weren’t quarterback gurus … well, you get the idea.

The goalposts continue to move for black coaches but not for their white colleagues – some of whom aren’t coordinators and don’t call plays in the league, yet are still getting looks as head-coaching candidates.

I don’t think that NFL owners are racist. But I do think they have a bias — subconscious or otherwise.

Decision makers aren’t held accountable for the fact that they mostly hire people who look like them, at times regardless of qualifications. Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper said as much after introducing Matt Rhule as his new head coach: “Dresses like (expletive) and sweats all over himself. He dresses like me, so I have to love the guy.” Tepper added, “I was a short-order cook; he was a short-order cook.”

So, instead of always talking about changing the Rooney Rule, let’s start talking about the issue in terms NFL owners and decision makers can understand. If teams don’t want to continue to lose — if they don’t want to continue to pay coaches even after they’re fired — they should take the time to consider all candidates, including the black ones.

If teams are slow to evaluate the entire pool of applicants, the marketplace will eventually punish those teams. Some NBA executives didn’t want to sign international players because they were perceived as soft. Last season, the NBA’s Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Player, Defensive Player of the Year and MVP were all international players.

At one time, the NFL was resistant to black quarterbacks, and that didn’t change because it was morally mandated. It changed because the pipeline was full of them, and if teams ignored the talented black quarterbacks they’d be at a disadvantage. The NFL had to get on board and take another look. Now, four MVP candidates in Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes are black signal callers, and all led their teams to the post-season. Mahomes will play in the Super Bowl on Feb. 2 in Miami, elevating his status to bonafide superstar on the way.

Competition is good for the marketplace. That same realization needs to happen with the hiring of black coaches.

There is no quick fix for the Rooney Rule, but there is an opportunity for improvement if we begin by re-framing the conversation. It’s not about helping black coaches get jobs, but helping NFL teams hire talented coaches.

And since talented coaches often lead to wins, and wins often improve the bottom line, it should be a no-brainer.

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