The NFL’s high-level hiring practices have come under fire in recent days, once the current cycle ended with no minority candidates hired for eight head-coaching jobs and seven G.M.-level positions. And so it’s understandable that the man after whom the Rooney Rule is named would believe that the rule that bears his name isn’t the problem.
And, frankly, it isn’t.
“You can’t saddle these [coaches or owners] and say ‘You have to do this,’ ” Rooney tells the league in-house media company. “We want minorities to get the job, and we’re willing to say that’s our goal. But when it gets down to a team, you can’t say to them, ‘This is what you have to do.’ You can say to the owners that the Rooney Rule, you have to follow it.”
Still, it’s up to the league at large to set the terms of the Rooney Rule. As currently constituted, the rule requires only that one minority candidate be interviewed for every head-coaching and G.M. job. There’s a growing sense that the rule must expand.
While the letter of the rule routinely is followed, its spirit often is violated. In 2003, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones knew he was going to hire Bill Parcells. But Jones had to comply with the Rooney Rule, so he interviewed Dennis Green by phone, prompting the league to tweak the Rooney Rule to require the interviews to be conducted in person.
In late 2009, the Redskins interviewed assistant coach Jerry Gray for the job held by Jim Zorn while Jim Zorn still had the job, at a time when everyone who was paying any attention knew that Mike Shanahan would be the team’s next coach.
This year, the Chiefs provided a perfunctory interview to Falcons special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong just before locking on to Andy Reid. There has been little buzz in the league or the media that Armstrong is a viable head-coaching candidate — primarily because very few special-team coaches ever vault directly to the top job on the sidelines.
Though the NFL has yet to require that teams interview a minority candidate not currently employed by the team (which would be an easy and proper fix, given as Tony Dungy recently pointed out no African-American coach has been hired via an external search since Rooney hired Mike Tomlin in 2007), Rooney seems to be willing to expand the rule to include key assistant coaches, like offensive and defensive coordinators.
“With these eight [new] coaches, now they have to build a staff,” Rooney said. “A lot of people think it’s really difficult and things like that. They do it quickly. Where in times, they should look at the whole thing. Is it necessary to do it as quickly as they’ve done?”
They do it quickly because they line up the staffs before they even get the jobs. It’s one of the aspects of the interview — if we give you this job, who are you bringing with you? And when it comes to hiring assistant coaches, diversity routinely takes a backseat to friendships and, frankly, nepotism.
While the guys who get the head-coaching jobs will grumble, that’s the easiest way to start filling the pipeline with diverse candidates, even though in the end the head coach will be free to hire friends and relatives (or relatives of friends) for the jobs on the coaching staff. So there wouldn’t be, and couldn’t be, a hiring mandate, at any level of the coaching structure.
And that brings us back to the point most commonly raised by those who want to see any talk of minority coaches disappear. As the argument goes, the teams are hoping to hire the best candidates for these jobs. So if they believe that a white candidate is the best candidate, so be it.
That argument typically includes reference to the absence of white running backs and white cornerbacks from NFL teams. But here’s the biggest difference. NFL coaches and General Managers sift through hundred of players every year, looking for the best 90 to bring to training camp. Then they carefully study those 90, looking for the best 53. Then they constantly scrutinize those 53, ensuring that only the best 53 remain on the team and that the top 22 are at all times on the field.
Coaches and General Managers, in comparison to player acquisitions, rarely are fired and hired. Teams don’t have a razor-sharp structure in place to find candidates and to vet candidates and to scrutinize candidates. There are no drills or exercises that can be conducted to demonstrate tangible skills. Even then, there’s no way to see what these candidates can do if they had the job. Instead, a leap of faith is made based largely on conversations and communications and the “gut feeling” that arises during that process.
The Rooney Rule was promulgated because minority candidates weren’t getting sufficient chances to participate in that process, which prevented them from establishing the kind of rapport with a white owner and/or G.M. that would give the white owner and/or G.M. the “gut feeling” that this candidate is the best candidate for the job. Since 2007, owners and General Managers ultimately have acquired the appropriate comfort level only with African-American candidates who have worked for the team in a capacity other than head coach (including interim head coach), giving the owner and other key decision-makers an extended opportunity to observe the candidate and to get to know him.
Put simply, the ridiculous views that got Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder fired by CBS are continuously undermined by a process that is put in place to find the best of the very best professional football players. But the ridiculous views that got Al Campanis fired by the Dodgers (and I’d forgotten how great Ted Koppel was in response to Campanis) could still be lurking in the hearts and minds of some of the elderly white billionaires who own football teams, primarily because the opportunities to prove those warped attitudes incorrect are, in comparison to player turnover, few and far between.
In the end, the only solution may be the passage of time, as a new generation of men (or women) with more diverse backgrounds and experiences accumulate the wealth and the influence to purchase NFL teams. The only way to accelerate that process could be a racial discrimination class-action lawsuit fueled not as much by a vague and convoluted sausage-making process as by the obvious output of the meat grinder.