The Rooney Rule: The NFL’s Greatest Hypocrisy

Let’s be honest: the NFL is a white-dominated organization.

From the owners to the commissioner to team GM’s and head coaches, there are very few people of color in positions of power in the NFL. In response to the overwhelming lack of diversity in the NFL, the league adopted “The Rooney Rule” in 2003.

The Rooney Rule basically states that each team shall interview at least one minority candidate for every head coaching opening. In the past, teams that have failed to do so have been fined by the league (the Detroit Lions were fined $200,000 in 2003 for failing to interview a minority candidate when the team hired Steve Mariucci). And there is no question that the rule has led to greater opportunities for minority candidates.

Prior to the institution of the Rooney Rule, there had been 8 non-white head coaches in the history of the NFL (Fritz Pollard, Tom Flores, Art Shell, Dennis Green, Ray Rhodes, Tony Dungy, Terry Robiskie, and Herm Edwards). In the 17 years since the institution of the Rooney Rule, there have been 18 non-white head coaches in the NFL and 10 of the previous coaches of color were hired for second jobs, for a grand total of 28 non-white coaching hires in those 17 years.

One might look at those statistics and say that the Rooney Rule has been effective in providing greater opportunity for minority coaches, but that fails to recognize the hypocrisy of the rule in the first place.

The Rooney Rule is merely designed to assuage the protests of minority groups, not to level the playing field. Why do I say this?

Who instituted the Rooney Rule? The team owners.

Who is ultimately responsible for the hiring of head coaches? The team owners.

The Rooney Rule is completely unnecessary if the team owners were truly committed to hiring minority coaches. They could just hire them.

Critics of the NFL’s record for hiring minority head coaches point to the fact that, at present, of the 32 teams in the NFL, there are only four non-white head coaches (Mike Tomlin, Anthony Lynn, Ron Rivera, and Brian Flores) and that three of those have only been on the job for three seasons of less (Mike Tomlin has been the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2007).

These critics also point to how easy it is to avoid hiring non-white coaches because the rule only mandates that the team interview a minority candidate – an easy enough requirement to fill. The rule has no teeth.

The rule’s supporters point to the increased number of minority head coaches in the league and argue that the pipeline still needs to get filled. If one were starting from scratch with no minority coaches on any level of the NFL (coordinators, position coaches, etc.), it would take time for new coaches to work their way up the ranks to even be qualified for a head coaching position. That takes time.

That is true, but it does not explain how so few qualified minority candidates are hired as head coaches. Byron Leftwich, the current offensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and former offensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals, is considered a brilliant coordinator and many see him as a rising star in the coaching ranks, yet there are teams who hire head coaches with less coordinator experience than Leftwich (the Detroit Lions, for example, hiring Rod Marinelli as head coach with exactly zero years of coordinator experience). And, speaking of the Lions, Teryl Austin was once considered one of the better defensive coordinators in the league and, due to the opportunities provided by the Rooney Rule, was interviewed for several head coaching positions during his time with the Lions. He was once even a finalist for the Cincinnati Bengals’ head coaching job.

He received zero job offers and is currently a position coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

I don’t want to dismiss the significance of the progress that the NFL has made in minority hiring since the institution of the Rooney Rule, but I believe that it has been more due to societal changes and public pressure than the Rooney Rule itself.

As the NFL has recently voiced its support for Black Lives Matter and the protests against police brutality and injustice, it shows how far the league has come. That should be commended. Particularly when so many people of color put their bodies and their minds at risk in order to make the NFL the obscenely profitable entity it is.

But, where white former players have always been given opportunities to further their football careers with opportunities in the coaching ranks, it is long past time that people of color are given the same opportunities.

And the Rooney Rule will not be what makes that happen.

The owners will.

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