When the NFL first was made to formally address the embarrassing lack of diversity in its coaching and front-office ranks back in the early aughts, a scant three of the league’s 32 teams were helmed by minority head coaches. Seventeen years since the introduction of the Rooney Rule, which requires all clubs to interview at least one minority candidate for its openings at head coach and general manager, the grand total entering the 2020 season has inched upward to four: the Dolphins’ Brian Flores, the Chargers’ Anthony Lynn and the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, who are African American, and Washington’s Ron Rivera, who is Hispanic.
Lately it feels like we’re moving backwards. Only three of the 20 head coaching gigs that have opened up since the end of the 2017 season have been filled by minorities, an unacceptable outcome in a league where more than 70% of the players are African American. Among the highly qualified coaches of color passed over for less accomplished candidates in this most recent hiring cycle were Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who each played central roles in guiding their teams to this year’s Super Bowl. Too many teams have violated the spirit of the rule, bringing in minority candidates for sham interviews with a predetermined hire waiting in the wings, safe in the knowledge a bad-faith search is practically impossible to prove. Only once in nearly two decades has a club been penalized for non-compliance: when the Detroit Lions couldn’t keep it in their pants long enough to at least do the dance before hiring Steve Mariucci, earning them a $200,000 fine in 2003.
It’s become clear the Rooney Rule is deeply flawed. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell admitted as much during his annual state of the league address in January, promising tangible steps toward fixing the problem this offseason. That discussion began this week with an aggressive proposal to improve teams’ third-round draft picks between six and 10 spots if they hired a head coach or general manager of color, in addition to other compensation for hiring minority candidates as positional assistants.
The owners chose to table the incentive scheme, instead doubling down on the Rooney Rule. “Clubs will now be required to interview at least two external minority candidates for head coach vacancies; at least one minority candidate for any of the three coordinator vacancies; and at least one external candidate for the senior football operations or general manager position,” the NFL said in a statement.
Alas, the reloaded fiat is little more than a bandaid on a broken leg. Measures like these will only result in more of the same problems because they fail to address the root cause.
The issue starts at the college level, a choking off of the pipeline that helps explain the dismal outcomes in the pros. The universities that comprise the NCAA’s power five conferences aren’t hiring black coaches. Alumni and boosters aren’t supporting black coaches. When black coaches do manage to land a top job, they are given a shorter timeframe to prove themselves and almost never get second chances at the same level after they’re let go. Two of the most prominent black trailblazers at storied football schools, Charlie Strong at the the University of Texas and Tyrone Willingham at Notre Dame, were kneecapped after three seasons: before their first recruiting classes had even reached their senior year.
The overwhelmingly conservative billionaire cadre of NFL owners who are positioned to make these hires are in the same extended old boys’ club as the university trustees perpetuating the pattern in college. Flatly stated, the lack of minority representation in positions of power is debilitating toward any meaningful push for diversity. “College coaches are expected to fundraise and schmooze with alumni as well as coach,” says Mark Naison, a professor of African American studies and history at Fordham University. “The rich alumni, most of whom are white, feel more comfortable with people who look like them. So long as alumni dollars drive college football funding, white coaches will have a huge hiring advantage.”
What the NCAA can and should do is address the problem from the ground up by creating more opportunities for minorities in athletic departments and designating scholarships for students of color that are interested in sports-related careers. Relying on the intermittent largesse of those in power just isn’t cutting it.
The Rooney Rule, despite its notorious lack of efficacy, is a net positive because it gives minority coaches the opportunity to at least get in front of teams and impress them. After a candidate interviews once or twice they can know what to expect and be better prepared for the process in the future.
But the systemic barriers to entry that have been installed over more than a century of organized football can’t be undone with a flick of the pen. At the end of the day, the people that put Trump in office are the same trustees on those boards and the same people that own NFL teams.
Another less obvious roadblock, as one African American assistant currently on an NFL coaching staff explained to me, is that many white head coaches simply don’t know nearly as many of their black counterparts. They don’t want to lose the black coaches they have and are comfortable with, he says, which often leads to black coaches being held back out of their superior’s self-interest. While he disagrees with the NFL’s shelved plan of offering teams draft selections for hiring coaches of color, he would support the awarding of compensatory picks for promoting minorities from within the organization. Another suggestion: Shutting down or at least somehow regulating the rampant culture of nepotism that enables family members of coaches to skip the process over guys who have a track record of success in the league wouldn’t hurt.
“Clearly we are not where we want to be on this level,” Goodell said in January. “It’s clear we need to change and do something different. There’s no reason to expect we’re going to have a different outcome next year without those kinds of changes.”
Admitting you have a problem is the first step. But getting the NFL where it needs to be on diversity won’t happen overnight.