The NFL instituted the Rooney Rule in 2003 with the stated goal of diversifying the coaching staff of NFL teams. It required that teams interview at least one candidate of color when hiring a head coach. The NFL expanded the rule to include important front-office positions. The rule was created to address the glaring fact that the color of the bosses did not reflect the fact that 70% of NFL players are Black.
Critics say it is all a charade because the NFL teams may interview the candidates, but they still hire who they believe to be the best candidate. It was and is a rule with few consequences (fines are seldom imposed) for breaking it, excepting the uproar caused by each new hire that is not of color. There were no rewards for hiring staff of color until 2021 when teams received an extra third-round draft pick for two years. Those who lose minority also get third-round compensatory picks for three years.
These incentives, however, have not been enough to sway team owners. While shareholders can pressure publicly traded companies, employees and the government, the teams (excepting Green Bay) are privately held by billionaires used to giving orders rather than taking them.
The NFL did recently make some changes to the Rooney Rule. Amidst some vague language about diverse candidates are new rules about documenting the interview process and more accountability for the thinking of the decision-makers. This change is likely an attempt to address the allegations of sham interviews — Black candidates report that their interviews are typically treated as a formality with no genuine interest in them as a new hire.
Brian Flores files lawsuit over sham interviews
The Dolphins fired black head coach Brian Flores in January. He subsequently interviewed for other positions but was not hired during the recent interview cycle. Flores responded by filing a lawsuit against the NFL and its teams, alleging that he and other Black coaches were discriminated against.
Flores also provided a text from fellow coach and former boss Bill Belichick, who congratulated him on getting a job with the New York Giants. Unfortunately, Flores was scheduled to interview for the job a few days after receiving the text. Belichick meant to send the text to white candidate Brian Daboll (who got the job). Flores asked Belichick if the text was a mistake, to which Belichick responded by saying yes and he had heard that Daboll got the job. According to Flores, up to 40 Black coaches could join the class action.
Some good news
One coach who likely will not join that class action is Lovie Smith. A veteran coach of two high schools, seven colleges, and four NFL teams (with a Superbowl appearance leading the Bears), the Houston Texans hired Smith as head coach. He and the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin are currently the only two Black head coaches in the NFL.
Keep it or can it?
Some argue that the Rooney is hard to enforce, and there is no point in keeping up the charade. Others believe that rules (like laws) are amended over time to address the issue better. Flores’s lawsuit will keep the case on the front burner, at least until the teams start playing meaningful games. Check back to this space for updates.