The question of whether the Rooney Rule is working may be best resolved by the proof that is, or isn’t, in the pudding. The NFL currently has only four minority coaches. Three — Mike Tomlin, Brian Flores, and Anthony Lynn — are African-American.
“We’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of the [NFL], yet we have only three head coaches of color,” Fritz Pollard Alliance executive director Rod Graves told Ken Belson of the New York Times. “For all the hoopla that football has become in this country, that kind of progress, or lack of, is shameful.”
One of the NFL’s top executives doesn’t disagree with Graves.
“When you look at the demographics, it’s embarrassing,” NFL senior V.P. of football operations Troy Vincent told Belson.
The NFL has even fewer African-American General Managers, and the Texans riled up Rod Graves last year when creating a G.M. vacancy, interviewing a pair of minority candidates, and not hiring anyone for the job after the obvious effort to lure Nick Caserio away from the Patriots fell through.
As to coaches, the biggest problem is that minority candidates aren’t being groomed to become head coaches. With NFL teams typically looking for coaches with an offensive background, the league needs more African-American quarterback coaches and offensive coordinators.
“We have to make sure we’re doing everything we can do to build a pipeline of play callers and quarterback coaches, who will eventually get to offensive coordinator and head coach,” Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill told Belson.
Two prominent minority offensive coordinators are Eric Bieniemy of the Chiefs and Byron Leftwich of the Buccaneers. Bieniemy has been passed over through two hiring cycles (unless he gets the Browns job) despite running one of the best offenses of the generation and working for a head coach who has spawned not a coaching tree but a forest. Leftwich’s name has yet to be mentioned for a step up, even though he coordinated an offense that generated more than 5,100 passing yards this season.
From time to time, the possibility has been raised of extending the Rooney Rule, which requires at least one minority candidate to be interviewed for every coaching vacancy, to coordinator positions. That idea has never gained much traction, possibly because of the land rush for assistants that occurs when a coach is hired.
Until the pipeline to head coaching jobs is filled with more minority candidates, the numbers won’t easily change. And the situation will continue to be “shameful” and “embarrassing.”
The environment continue to be ripe, frankly, for litigation. Because, however, any coach who would sue the league and/or one or more of its teams would have to be prepared to sacrifice the balance of his coaching career, it’s unlikely that any coach will claim discrimination based on race, age, or any other characteristic protected by law.
So, basically, in the unique, insulated, and small industry that is pro football at the highest level, the fact that there isn’t an abundance of employment alternatives protects the NFL and its franchises from the kind of courtroom accountability that has forced companies to change their ways when it comes to hiring, product safety, or any other individual legal rights that may be violated in the name of doing business the way the owners of the business please.
Without that threat — and absent African-American team owners — any improvements will be temporary and fleeting.