Monday, January 11, 2010

Does The Rooney Rule Make A Mockery of Minority Hiring in the NFL?

University of Southern California head football coach Pete Carroll has tendered his letter of resignation to the school and will become the head coach of the NFL's Seattle Seahawks. The deal, reportedly worth $35 million over 5 years, was struck while the Seahawks were simultaneously interviewing Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. This raised questions as to whether the Seahawks had fulfilled The Rooney Rule. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell stated that the league office was satisfied that the Seattle franchise had met their obligation to interview minority candidates for head coaching and front office positions.

The Rooney Rule, established in 2003, requires National Football League teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operations opportunities. The rule is named for Dan Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise and chairman of the NFL's diversity committee. The Rooney family is renowned for their long history of giving African-Americans opportunities in key team leadership positions. The Rooney Rule is widely considered as an example of Affirmative Action.

The Rooney Rule was adopted to ensure that minority candidates were considered for head coaching and senior management positions. According to Wikipedia, until 1979 Fritz Pollard was the only minority head coach in NFL history. By the time the rule was established, only Tom Flores, Art Shell, Dennis Green, Ray Rhodes, Tony Dungy, and Herman Edwards had ever held head coaching jobs. Since the Rooney Rule was implemented in 2003, Lovie Smith (Chicago Bears), Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh Steelers), Mike Singletary (San Francisco 49ers), and Raheem Morris (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) have become NFL head coaches.

Recently, the efficacy of the Rooney Rule has come into question with the hiring of Pete Carroll as the Seattle Seahawks head coach because it was reported that Seahawks officials had flown to Los Angeles early last week to interview Carroll. It was reported Saturday by an anonymous source that Carroll would be leaving the USC program to become the Seahawks head coach. At the same time, Seahawks officials were in Minneapolis, in the midst of a 4-hour long interview with Frazier.

To many, this gives the appearance that the Seahawks had no intention of seriously considering Leslie Frazier for the vacant coaching position and that they were simply using Frazier to fulfill the league's diversity policy.

The recent actions of the Seattle Seahawks, in addition to the NFL's $200,000 fine of the Detroit Lions in 2003 for failure to comply with the Rooney Rule for immediately hiring San Francisco 49ers head coach Steve Mariucci after firing Marty Mornhinweg without interviewing any other candidates, brings into serious question whether the Rooney Rule is serving its intended purpose of creating a pool of qualified minority candidates for upper-level positions.

The NFL and their member teams are attempting to walk a very narrow and delicate rope. On the one hand, many believe that teams should have the autonomy to spend their money as they please and hire the candidate that they feel best represents the team's philosophy and intended direction. On the other hand, in a league where 65% of the athletes are African-American, there has been a dearth of minorities ascending to head coaching and front office positions due to the "Good Ole Boys" networks in vogue around the league, which have served to deny minority candidates the opportunity to gain the requisite experience that many teams look for in a "qualified candidate".

One thing is certain. Despite the NFL's best intentions, franchises have made a mockery of the Rooney Rule, putting on peacock parades disguised as serious internal debate and business acumen in order to avoid the stiff fines levied for non-compliance.

We know that, without the rule, the likelihood of qualified minority candidates being considered for head coaching and senior football operations will revert back to the pre-Rooney Rule era, where the front offices of NFL teams were a mirror image of the mostly white, male dominated ownership.

However, with the Rooney Rule, minority coaches have been and will be skeptical when they receive a call from a NFL team offering high-level employment, wondering out loud or in the back of their minds whether they are being assessed on their qualifications and merits or whether they are being used to fulfill what amounts to The NFL's version of a quota system.

There is no easy answer forthcoming from the National Football League. Liberal civil rights activist will likely pressure the league into implementing stricter fines for non-compliance and more oversight of team's interview processes to ensure that candidates are being considered because the teams have a vested interest in their potential value. Conservatives will assert that the the NFL is impinging upon a franchise's ability to run their business independently and that the Rooney Rule already gives favoritism to protected groups by placing undue strictures on how a team conducts its hiring process.

All of these are valid points and I look forward to observing how NFL teams and commissioner Roger Goodell navigate these merky waters in the coming months and years.

What do you think the NFL could do to develop a policy that recognizes the historic dynamic surrounding the dearth of qualified minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operations opportunities in their league while also respecting and maintaining the autonomy of its member franchises?

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