The NFL has proposed an adjustment to the Rooney Rule that would reward teams hiring minority coaches and/or General Managers with enhanced draft position. Some within the league are concerned that enticing teams to make hiring decisions based in part on the race of the applicants would invite litigation from non-minority candidates who are fired from their positions or passed over for openings.
Cyrus Mehri, co-founder of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, believes those concerns are unfounded.
“I’m 100 percent certain based on my experience that they are on solid legal ground,” Mehri told PFT by phone on Sunday, regarding the proposed expansion to the Rooney Rule.
Mehri said the league developed the proposal after a “robust dialogue” with the Fritz Pollard Alliance throughout the offseason, with much of the conversation occurring at the Scouting Combine. Although the proposal “happened organically on the owners’ side,” Mehri wasn’t completely surprised by it. He explained that, through corporate America, companies link senior management bonuses to equal opportunity and diversity performance. Basically, it’s a diversity boost, with the incentive falling into a sweet spot where it’s significant enough to get a team’s attention but not so significant that it would be an overwhelming factor in firing and hiring decisions.
This doesn’t insulate the league from a legal challenge by a non-minority coach who believes that the proposal amounts to reverse discrimination on the basis of race. Mehri, who has extensive experience handling major discrimination cases against companies like Texaco, Coca-Cola, and Morgan Stanley, believes that the league would be exonerated, if challenged in court.
The legal merit in the proposal comes from the fact that, historically, the league has struggled to achieve diversity in coaching and G.M. ranks. This sets the stage for a carefully-crafted incentive aimed at helping to remedy past failures in the hiring of minority coaches and General Managers.
Mehri sees this proposal as “one of the great moments for hope” in the 18-year journey that began with the creation of the Rooney Rule. He also believes that owners have begun looking at the problem “more holistically,” with the use of entry-level fellowships and efforts to persuade franchises to develop their own diversity plans. The 49ers, Mehri pointed out, have a Rooney Rule that applies to both women and minorities for non-football positions.
Thus, Mehri sees the idea as an innovative concept and an “overall positive trend,” one that will be good for the game, and good for retired players who are trying to get into coaching and executive roles.
This doesn’t eliminate the concerns, including the comments made publicly by Chargers coach Anthony Lynn on Friday night. Lynn, a minority coach, said of the proposal, “Sometimes you can do the wrong thing while trying to do the right thing.”
“I have a great deal of respect for Coach Lynn,” Mehri said, “and what the owners are contemplating is something worthy of dialogue and refinement and improvement by casting a wide net and hearing other ideas on it. Coach Lynn’s voice should be heard.”
That may indeed be the next challenge for the league. Instead of ramming this proposal through without hearing all voices and talking through all concerns, the league should listen and discuss and contemplate before making a final decision — especially since the next hiring cycle won’t begin for eight more months.
Even if the powers-that-be are determined to pass this one over any objections or concerns, it makes sense to talk it through thoroughly and not dismiss those who believe it could be problematic or who believe that there’s a better way to enhance minority hiring. There’s a chance that, after understanding all issues and angles and discussing the matter fully and fairly, those who have concerns about the proposal will come around.