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The NFL Owners’ Unyielding Commitment to White Coaches

The Rooney Rule is supposed to ensure that candidates of color get a fair shot in the hiring process, but it's devolved into a sham.

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones (right) introduces newly hired head coach Mike McCarthy. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

The Rooney Rule, a policy that requires any team in the National Football League to interview at least one diverse candidate for any open head coach or senior executive position, was introduced in 2003, not due to the NFL’s benevolence (as ESPN personality Bomani Jones has reminded everyone) but because the year before, magniloquent lawyer Johnnie Cochran and attorney Cyrus Mehri threatened to sue the league for discrimination. They had good cause: In 2002, Herm Edwards of the New York Jets and Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts were the only two head coaches of color in the NFL.  

Were you to update some of the proper nouns in the latter half of this 18-year-old column by David Teel of the Daily Press, describing the conflict that Cochran and Mehri kick-started, it could serve as a chronicle of the current-day situation. There has been no permanent improvement. It’s not a complicated mystery why the NFL is failing to advance minority candidates into leadership roles, and it has become abundantly clear that the Rooney Rule alone does not generate enough force to solve the problem.

The last two years of hirings and firings are a damning sample. At the beginning of the 2018 season, the 32-team NFL had eight head coaches of color, the most in its history. That December, the league announced it would be introducing four “enhancements” to the Rooney Rule, the most significant being that clubs would be required to interview at least one diverse candidate outside of their organization. By the end of that season’s Black Monday, the informal name for the day when underwhelming teams usually choose to can their underwhelming leaders, three coaches of color remained. Some of those firings made sense; some fell on the sword for their bosses. Five white guys, most of whom were similar in some respect to Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay, another white guy who had captivated the league, took their spots.

Brian Flores of the Miami Dolphins was the only head coach of color hired that off-season, joining Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ron Rivera of the Carolina Panthers, and Anthony Lynn of the Los Angeles Chargers. Flores works under Chris Grier, currently the only black general manager in the NFL. Those two have a raw deal, as the Dolphins’ plan this past season was to trade as many talented players as possible for future picks and tank their season in pursuit of the best position in the 2020 draft. After a 0-7 start, the resulting roster screwed up this objective by finishing the year with five victories. Flores deserves credit for taking a team with practically no talent and getting it to topple two playoff-bound teams in the regular season, even though he was intentionally set up to fail.

This past Black Monday was less eventful: Five teams fired their coaches. One of the casualties was Rivera, who was quickly hired by the Washington Redskins, Dan Snyder’s football team. The four remaining spots went to white guys. The Carolina Panthers gave a seven-year contract to Matt Rhule, a guy whose résumé was primarily two stints at the college level. The Dallas Cowboys picked Mike McCarthy, who served as the Green Bay Packers’ head coach for almost 13 seasons before he was fired in 2018. The Giants went for Joe Judge, an unexpected choice who pulled double duty as the Patriots’ special teams and receivers coach. The Browns settled on Kevin Stefanski, who has filled various offense-related roles with the Minnesota Vikings since 2006 and has an NBA executive for a father. Once again, there will be a total of four head coaches of color in a league where over two-thirds of the players aren’t white, with the one new hire now working for the team with the racist name. It would be a delight to watch the NFL spin that as making, or even maintaining, progress. 

Call it a systemic problem, but the system worked. Every team searching for a head coach followed the Rooney Rule to the letter, but it failed to provide any improvement in one of the worst years for coaches of color since the rule was implemented. Teams can’t blame a lack of available candidates, because there were equivalent or better options for every white head coach who was hired. For the Cowboys, who wanted a head coach with significant experience: Jim Caldwell, who led the historically sad-sack Detroit Lions to two playoff appearances in his four seasons. For the Panthers and Browns, who wanted to electrify their offense and make the most of their respective skill position players: Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who has been considered head coach material for a couple of years now. For the Giants, who wanted someone knowledgeable in more than one facet of the game: Kris Richard, the Cowboys’ passing game coordinator and defensive backs coach. Marvin Lewis, David Shaw, Robert Saleh, Leslie Frazier, Teryl Austin, Duce Staley: All of these coaches have as much experience as most of this year’s hires or the Sean McVay clones installed last year. 

Why weren’t any of those viable candidates selected? Don’t mistake the familiar reason for an incorrect one: This is about racism. Whether it’s born from malice or ignorance, the owners are comfortable with their blind spots and will not budge without force, be it through legal action or a sudden competitive disadvantage. As with the freeze-out of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the owners rely on inaction, a mostly pliant sports media, and euphemisms to maintain reasonable doubt. If no one states the obvious, owners have a free hand to obscure the league’s fundamental hiring flaws with bromides: “He gives us the best chance to win” or “I just knew he was our guy.” The reason Dan Rooney, the deceased Pittsburgh Steelers owner for whom the rule is named, and the late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis are so comparatively well-known for supporting diversity in leadership roles is because their contemporaries were so bad at it. There is no plausible reason to explain why Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy promptly received head coaching gigs after each served as the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator, while Bieniemy languishes. In December, Kansas City’s head coach Andy Reid publicly urged teams to please, come poach his employee.

The players could be part of a solution to this problem by publicly scrutinizing it. After news broke of Stefanski’s hiring, NFL cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Chris Harris Jr. tweeted their disbelief that Bieniemy ended up without a promotion. While it’s unfair to put yet another burden on the players union, which is already preparing to undertake a huge battle when the current collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2020 season, it’s something to consider. There are future Bieniemys and Staleys within its ranks, and even just vocalizing the issue could force those in power to take it more seriously. 

Recently, the NFL has undertaken various efforts to bring more attention to minority candidates who deserve the chance to be a head coach, because the league knows its demographics are embarrassing. In November, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport gave the NFL a D+ in hiring diverse head coaches and an F in hiring diverse general managers. The league doesn’t make those hires; owners do, and they have not taken the initiatives seriously. This has become so glaringly apparent that candidates of color have grown increasingly cynical about the exercise, and some believe it’s a sham process, in which they don’t have a chance to succeed.

During a December 30 roundtable discussion on the Rooney Rule, NFL Network reporter Jim Trotter revealed that Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott rejected taking a meeting with the Panthers during their head coach search because “he wasn’t sure it would be a legitimate interview”—just a Rooney Rule box that needed to be checked before the team could snap up the true target of its affections. On January 7, Trotter shared a message 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.”

The Rooney Rule, in its current form, lacks the power to compel a team owner to do anything more than take one meeting with one candidate who isn’t white. It could be further enhanced—perhaps require a team to interview as many diverse candidates as it does white candidates—but ultimately, this could merely increase the number of sham interviews. It is disgraceful that in the history of the league, owners have collectively never been able to find 10—forget 16 or 32, just 10—people of color who can simultaneously serve as head coaches. If the NFL wants to create an actual pipeline of diverse candidates, it needs to hire head coaches and executives of color. This won’t happen without a return to the extreme pressure—perhaps wrought by direct action or legal duress—that league owners were forced to endure nearly two decades ago. These magnates and scions don’t need another Dan Rooney to handhold them to an acceptable minimum of progress. They need to face another outside threat.