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The Rooney Rule Is Broken—Will the NFL Do Anything to Fix It?

The latest coaching cycle paints a grim picture for coaching candidates of color

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One afternoon in October 2002, Johnnie Cochran assembled a press conference in Baltimore with his colleague Cyrus Mehri to discuss a proposal to reform the NFL’s hiring practices. The lawyers chose a steak house named for Hall of Fame head coach Don Shula as the venue to present a study they had commissioned from a University of Pennsylvania economics professor. The study had found that, from 1986 to 2001, black NFL head coaches had a higher winning percentage than white coaches but were more likely to be fired. And when head coaching positions did become available, black coaches weren’t getting the same consideration as their white counterparts: Of 139 openings during that span, only six had gone to black coaches. In January of that year, Tony Dungy was fired after a 9-7 record with the Buccaneers and the Vikings fired Dennis Green after going 5-10, his first losing season in 10 years as a head coach. “We’re at the lowest point in 10 years in terms of percentage of black head coaches in the league,” Mehri said.

Cochran, like so many times in his storied legal career, spoke forcefully, evoking Thurgood Marshall’s name in the same breath as then–Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. “Black coaches are being held to a higher standard,” Cochran said. “Now is the time for the NFL to step up and make a change.” Cochran and Mehri wanted the league to create more equitable opportunities for black coaches, and they weren’t above threatening legal action. “We can litigate this. We can bring a lawsuit,” Cochran said. “I think the NFL is reasonable. They understand that this can end up in the courts, and they’d rather not see that happen. But let’s see if we can have a dialogue. You only litigate after you’ve done everything you can to negotiate.”

The lawyers proposed rewarding teams for their efforts to diversify their sidelines and front offices and punishing offending organizations that didn’t give coaches of color opportunities to interview for head coaching positions, including the loss of a first-round draft pick. Lower picks would be forfeited if coaches of color weren’t considered for coordinator-level jobs. Cochran and Mehri’s pressure paid off: In 2003, the NFL instituted the Rooney Rule (named after the late Steelers owner Dan Rooney), a hiring policy requiring organizations to interview coaches of color for head coaching positions, which was later expanded to include senior football operations jobs. The passage of the rule was helped along by the lobbying efforts of former players Kellen Winslow and John Wooten, who formed an “affinity group” of scouts, coaches, and front-office personnel.

The NFL was forced into action 17 years ago, but it’s hard to find positive signs of the Rooney Rule’s impact today. NFL players are overwhelmingly black now, as they were in 2003, but that isn’t reflected on the sidelines or in C-suites. This year’s coach-hiring cycle is as disappointing as its predecessors have been: No black coaches were hired for five open head coaching positions. One Latino coach, Ron Rivera, was reshuffled into the coaching ranks in Washington after he was fired by the Panthers. Four white coaches filled the remaining open positions: The Cowboys hired former Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, the Panthers replaced Rivera with Baylor coach Matt Rhule, the Giants turned to Patriots assistant Joe Judge, and on Monday the Browns announced the hiring of Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski. It’s the third season in a row when only one coach of color was hired for a top job.

“I don’t care what flavor your ice cream is, there are candidates of color who deserve these opportunities,” Rod Graves, the head of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an advocacy organization named after the NFL’s first black head coach, told me this month. Even before this latest cycle had ended, Graves said he’d be surprised if there were any positive signs for black coaches. “If a quick decision is made,” he said about coaching hires, “typically it means you had your mind made up on a candidate and you didn’t care to risk losing it. There’s no reason to speed through this, especially when you have a wealth of candidates out there with the experience.”

Football’s history contains so many examples of the bastardization of the black body despite what it has offered the sport. Pollard was a head coach in 1921—and it wasn’t until Art Shell was hired by the Raiders in 1989 that another black coach led an NFL team. Black coaches across the sport struggle to stay relevant, losing opportunities to white coaches with equal or lesser qualifications. Winning does not beget professional advancement. Results are not a bridge to opportunity.

“It’s discouraging, to say the least,” Brian Levy, an agent for several black coaches in the NFL and college football, including Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, said of this hiring cycle. “We’re really trying to find out what the standard is, and every year the standard changes. We’re just trying to swim against the current.” It’s a similar sentiment that Chargers coach Anthony Lynn expressed to me last summer. “We all know,” he said. “It’s the criteria, to be honest with you. When the owners look at you, and you have something to do with the quarterback, or you’re a play-caller, then you’re more likely to get an opportunity, to be honest with you. And I think where we’re going wrong is just the criteria.

“The only thing that disappoints me a little bit is when we’re told the criteria, and we don’t stand by it,” Lynn continued.

The ongoing failure of the Rooney Rule is that it is working as intended. It wasn’t meant to be the bright torch of change to make professional football fair and equitable. It was a bridge to an interview, and in this way, it has been successful. But it’s meant only to eliminate one barrier to professional advancement. It’s not designed to address systemic racism still in place, keeping black and brown talent from getting the top jobs in the sport. The rule provides blanket cover for those who deserve the real blame for the crisis of opportunity in the NFL, those who retain hiring power, and who ignore the virtue of what Cochran and Mehri fought to enact.

Last summer, I spent months interviewing coaches, advocates, and league executives about the state of hiring for coaching candidates of color in the NFL. The league’s own hiring data, produced annually by academics at the University of Central Florida, highlights problems of unconscious bias, and systemic barriers to upward mobility faced by black and brown coaches. Researchers used data compiled from the NFL’s archival human resources database to study head coaching demographics, tenure, and occupational mobility patterns from 1963 to February 2019. They pointed to the demographics of NFL owners—32 of whom (out of 34) are white—as an impediment to candidates of color, an example of the inherent bias that occurs in hiring practices.

“In addition to working to increase the number of people of color who make hiring decisions (team owners and general managers), it is imperative to work on improving ‘the perception of competence’ of sport business professionals of color,” the report read, borrowing from the professor Kenneth Shropshire’s 1996 work on the subject. “Stated differently, even if there is an increase in general managers of color and team owners of color, negative race consciousness associated with the coaching and coordinating capabilities of candidates of color may still exist and persist.”

Panthers owner David Tepper told the team’s website that he felt drawn to new head coach Matt Rhule because the two men shared so much in common. “He dresses like [expletive] and sweats all over himself. He dresses like me, so I have to love the guy,” Tepper said. “I was a short-order cook, he was a short-order cook. Nobody gave him anything, nobody gave me anything.” Many may believe comments like those are endearing. A light-hearted way into understanding how two men could become kindred spirits. But the data explains that those in hiring positions frequently gravitate toward candidates that look like they do, which adds to the shrinking of opportunities for coaches of color in the game.

The easy response is to blame the mechanisms already in place. The Rooney Rule, flawed as it may be, is not the only answer. The shame lies at the top. The shame lies with management. The responsibility to change this annual routine resides with the power brokers of football, who keep relying on the same unimaginative hires every year.

“We are in a battle for social justice,” Graves wrote in an email Monday. “The current system of hiring and promoting talent into the upper levels of NFL management is a flawed system. We cannot expect fairness if business remains status quo.”

Troy Vincent, executive vice president of football operations for the league and a former all-pro cornerback, told me last summer that black coaches “know this game” and are asking only for “a fair process.” Vincent said several times in our interview that the league “cannot require the club or make the club hire” any candidate. But he has admitted on several occasions, including last month to The New York Times, that the demographics of the league are “embarrassing.” Marvin Lewis, the former Bengals head coach, unsuccessfully interviewed for the Dallas Cowboys’ head coaching opening. “You keep beating your head up against the wall, but I would say—and again, this is somebody’s business, this is somebody’s franchise, and nobody’s going to tell them who to hire,” Lewis said.

Another annual study from UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport stated that racial hiring in the NFL in 2019 was the worst it has been in 15 years, citing less than 15 percent of diverse representation at the head coaching level, the general manager level, and vice president level. The NFL received subpar grades in each category.

“We need to stop focusing on the small indications of victory,” Graves told me. “We should be pulling for a commitment from owners to identify a strategy that addresses diversity in leadership roles throughout their organization. Instead of every year, we’re getting on the edge of our seats just for head coaches and general managers, we should know that we can’t expect for every open position to have a person of color be named. For 100 years of football, we’ve gone from Fritz Pollard to three or four coaches of color in 2020, and it’s beyond shameful.”

The NFL and other athletic entities try to position themselves as arenas of meritocracy. Diversity requirements are an imposition on these stated aims. However, these are false virtues fueled by self-interest. What these ideas fail to realize, as Graves told me last summer, is that diversity is good for business. If owners were genuinely trying to find the best people possible to win football games, the riddle would’ve been solved long ago.

Black and brown coaches have built their own networks and pipelines to facilitate their professional advancement, but they’re rendered ineffective if teams aren’t seriously considering them in the first place. Coaches are, naturally, fatigued by this fight. Many told me last year about the toll it takes to work their way up through the coaching ranks. Some coaches have been trying to get a head job for decades.

Raheem Morris, an assistant with the Atlanta Falcons, told me he has to keep moving forward, even if it’s a losing battle. He had to keep faith in an imperfect system. “I have no choice but to believe that,” he said. Lynn lamented that the system has never “been equal.” This problem has existed in football throughout its existence, at the pro level as well as in college. It is disheartening. There is no reason coaches should be optimistic about their chances of getting the top jobs in football until the league grapples with the entrenched prejudice in its game. Coaches work until they can’t anymore, when the weight is too heavy to bear, when they tire of being passed over for subpar talent. For white talent. For ideas about who coaches look like. Every year, without fail, we get a glimpse of that illustration.

“This is the National Football League. We have to recognize the fact that we haven’t met our obligations in that area as a league,” Graves said. He is beyond ready, like so many, for something to truly change. “We are still dealing with the perception that we are incapable of leading in those areas. It’s like we’re talking about black coaches like they’re black quarterbacks. And we have to understand that the game belongs to all of us.”