Anthony Lynn Mike Tomlin Black coaches NFL Rooney Rule

When the Cleveland Browns selected Kevin Stefanski to be their new head coach, it eliminated any possibility that the NFL would increase its number of minority head coaches for the 2020-2021 season. 32 teams make up the NFL. Of those teams, only four have a minority head coach. There are three African-American head coaches – Anthony Lynn with the Los Angeles Chargers, Brian Flores with the Miami Dolphins, and Mike Tomlin with the Pittsburgh Steelers. This hiring season, the Washington Redskins re-hired the only Latino head coach in the league, Ron Rivera. Rivera was fired by the North Carolina Panthers shortly before being hired by Washington. The NFL had five opportunities to increase its number of minority head coaches and failed to do so. The NFL’s failure to select an African-American head coach has re-ignited the debate regarding the Rooney Rule and its effectiveness.

The Rooney Rule is named for former Pittsburgh Steelers owner, Dan Rooney who spearheaded the league’s adoption of the rule. It was adopted in 2003 to require NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate for all head coach openings. In 2009, the rule was expanded to include general manager positions and other equivalent front-office positions. The rule was later expanded to include women for executive openings in the commissioner’s office. Due to the NFL’s recent hiring practices, many are questioning the effectiveness of the Rooney Rule. Last year, the NFL had eight head coach openings. Only one was filled by a minority candidate. This year the only minority candidate hired was Rivera. The NFL’s failure to give any new black coaches a shot at being a head coach for the upcoming season has critics rightfully questioning the effectiveness of the Rooney Rule.

The Creation and Adoption of the Rooney Rule

Before the effectiveness of the Rooney Rule can be adequately addressed, it is important to briefly address what led to the adoption of the rule. In the twelve seasons before the Rooney Rule was adopted, the NFL had only 6 minority head coaches. In 2002, lawyers Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri threatened to sue the NFL due to their hiring practices after a shocking report was published. The report found that over a period of fifteen years, black coaches were statistically more successful than white coaches. However, the NFL’s hiring practices did not support that finding. During that time, Tony Dungy and Herm Edwards were the only black coaches in the league. The next year in 2003 the league adopted the Rooney Rule requiring each team to interview at least one minority candidate for every head coach opening.

Has the Rooney Rule been Effective?

Four years after the Rooney Rule was adopted, the Steelers hired Mike Tomlin. His hiring was a sign of progress for black coaches in the NFL. It made the rule appear to be effective. In 2011, the NFL employed its most minority head coaches with a total of 8 head coaches of color. The NFL also promoted Mel Tucker to interim head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars when Jack Del Rio was fired during the week twelve of the 2011 season. This briefly bought the number of minority head coaches up to nine. Initially, it appeared that the Rooney Rule was garnering its desired effect. However, fast-forward to 2020 and there are only four minority NFL head coaches. What happened? How can the NFL fix this problem?

Why Does the Initial Progress Appear to be Going Backwards?

It appears that the NFL is going backward in regard to hiring African-American head coaches. Even when the NFL hired its most minority heard coaches, those coaches only made up 25% of the coaches while the players were 68% African-American. Today, approximately 70% of the NFL’s players are African-American. However, African-Americans presence is almost non-existent amongst head coaches. The Rooney Rule initially led to the hiring of a substantial number of minority head coaches. However, as of late, the rule does not appear to be very effective. In fact, it only seems to be a box that NFL owners have check during the interview process.

Teams Only Interview Minorities to Check off a Box

Many critics argue that the rule is not effective because NFL owners only interview minority candidates to simply say that they did. They further argue that NFL owners only interview minority candidates to “comply” with the rule knowing they have no intention of giving the candidate serious consideration. They argue that such interviews are used to circumvent the rule.

Perhaps some teams are only interviewing minority candidates to comply with the rule with no intention of giving the candidate real consideration. Given the NFL’s recent hiring there is a strong argument to be made in support of that. Over the last two seasons, the NFL has had 13 head coach openings. Only two minorities filled those positions. After the NFL only hired one minority out of 8 openings, the league recommended that teams interview at least two minority candidates. Of those hiring, the Cowboys were the only team to still interview only one minority candidate. Even for the teams that complied with the recommendation, only one hired a minority. Clearly that recommendation is ineffective as well.

There are not Enough Minorities in the Pipeline to Become an NFL Head Coach

Other critics of rule, argue that there simply are not enough minorities in the pipeline to become an NFL head coach. Typically, people who are in the pipeline to become a head coach in the NFL have first served as an offensive coordinator. Being an effective offensive coordinator is the best way to garner serious consideration for being hired as a head coach. The only problem is not many African-Americans are given the opportunity to serve in those positions. Since 2009, nearly 40% of newly hired head coaches were former offensive coordinators. Of those offensive coordinators hired each season, nearly 70% of them were white.

In 2010, 2011, and 2016, every newly hired offensive coordinator was white. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Byron Leftwhich and Kansas City Chiefs Eric Bieniemy are the most recent minority offensive coordinator hires. Without the opportunity to serve as an offensive coordinator, it becomes increasingly less likely that there will be a substantial increase in minority head coaches. These bleak opportunities have led many African American football personnel to seek opportunities in college football. They hope to do well enough in college sports to garner the attention of hiring officials in the NFL. However, the pastures there are not much greener.

The Lack of Diversity Amongst College Football Coaches

While there are more opportunities in college football because there are more teams, those opportunities are not going to African-Americans. At the beginning of the 2019 college football season, there were only 14 black head coaches out of 130 Division I Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Due to college football’s lack of a substantial number of African American head coaches, some scholars have advocated for the adoption of the Eddie Robison Rule. The Eddie Robison Rule, like the Rooney Rule, would require colleges to interview at least one minority candidate for each head coach position.

In 2009, the state Oregon legislature enacted a law requiring its public universities to interview minority candidates for all head coaching and athletic director positions. The law has been effective. The University of Oregon’s last two football coaches have been black. The law made a difference for minority candidates in Oregon. Immediately after Oregon passed the law it seemed that other states would follow suit. However, other states have not. Due to other states not passing a similar law, college football management continues to lack diversity. Due to that, college football is not necessarily a strong pipeline for black coaches hoping to make it up the ranks of the NFL. Other states should follow suit and enact similar legislation. If they did it would increase the number of minorities in the pipeline for NFL jobs in the long run.

How to Improve the Effectiveness of the Rooney Rule

There are many suggestions for ways to strengthen the Rooney Rule. Perhaps the most direct option is to apply the rule to offensive coordinator positions. Perhaps requiring teams to interview a minority for offensive coordinator positions would get more minorities hired on the road to an NFL head coaching job. Some argue that telling a coach who he has to interview for his staff could create bad blood. There is a possibility that would happen. However, as professionals, those feelings should dissipate in the interest of getting the job done.

Another way to strengthen the rule would be to make the recommendation of interviewing at least two candidates a part of the rule. It would put more minorities in front of the hiring committees. The NFL must also create a system to hold teams accountable and to ensure that they are giving the candidates serious consideration. Most, importantly the league and NFL owners have to truly want to fix the problem. The rule can be re-vised 10 times. However, if there is not a genuine want to increase diversity no revision will matter.

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