NFL Hiring: Is the Rooney Rule Worth It?

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NFL Hiring: Is the Rooney Rule Worth It?
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Was Eagles owner Jeff Lurie wrong to hire the man he wanted, Chip Kelly, instead of a minority candidate?

After nearly every season in the NFL the Monday after the end of the regular season becomes “Black Monday”, the day when underachieving or inept head coaches get their pink slips.

This kicks off a frenzy of coaching speculation, interviewing, and hiring as teams try to find the next Lombardi, Landry, or Belichick to remake their teams from also-ran’s into legitimate contenders.

This season “Black Monday” stretched out for a bit longer than usual and saw a large number of coaches turned out, along with most of their coaching staffs.

The Bills, Chargers, Eagles, Cardinals, Chiefs, Jaguars, and Bears all fired their coaches and other teams made moves to replace coordinators and/or general managers.

As soon as the moves were made the speculation about who would go where started in earnest. To be perfectly honest, as a fan I love the NFL’s version of the “Silly Season.” There is so much up in the air, so many possibilities, and so many decisions to debate that it should be a real NFL fan’s dream.

However, a part of me hates this part of the year as well. Because as sure as night follows day, as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, the talk is going to be redirected away from football decisions and refocused on racial issues.

Because you can’t have a “Black Monday” without discussion of the Rooney Rule.

The Rooney Rule, as we all know, is the NFL's answer to affirmative action. It requires teams to interview minority candidates for all head coaching and senior football positions and running afoul of the rule can bring major league sanctions for a team; witness the fine levied on the Lions in 2003 for hiring Steve Mariucci.

Much like the greater societal application of affirmative action, the rule began with the best intentions; to give qualified minority applicants a fair shot at employment in their chosen field of work.

However, much like its societal sister the Rooney Rule seems to have morphed from those noble roots to become some sort of racial bean counting system.

Is the Rooney Rule necessary to promote coaching diversity?

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Witness the outcry about the hiring that followed this year’s “Black Monday.” The main idea is that since none of the head coaching and general manager vacancies were filled by minorities the system is somehow broken and the Rooney Rule needs to be amended.

Somehow more interview candidates for coordinator positions would result in an increase of minority head coaches and general managers; at least that’s the working assumption.

As for me, I would not mind in the least seeing the Rooney Rule eliminated from the league. For all of the talk of how the rule has impacted minority hiring, I just don’t see it.

Think about this, in all of the years prior to the league implementing their affirmative action program in 2003, the league had seen a total of six minority full time head coaches:

  • Tom Flores (Raiders 1979-87; Seahawks 1992-94)
  • Art Shell (Raiders 1989-94)
  • Denny Green (Minnesota 1992-2001)
  • Ray Rhodes (Eagles 1995-98; Packers 1999)
  • Tony Dungy (Tampa Bay 1996-2001; Colts 2002-08)
  • Herm Edwards (Jets 2001-05; Kansas City 2006-08)

Since the advent of the Rooney Rule there have been a total of nine coaches hired:

  • Mike Tomlin
  • Lovie Smith
  • Mike Singletary
  • Marvin Lewis
  • Romeo Crennel (twice)
  • Raheem Morris
  • Jim Caldwell
  • Leslie Frazier
  • Ron Rivera

J.D. Cuban/Getty Images
Tom Flores was hired by the Raiders and Seahawks almost a quarter century before the Rooney Rule.

I deliberately omitted interim coaches, because they were placeholders. So for all the ballyhoo about the Rooney Rule, it has created a whopping +3 in head coaching jobs for minority candidates! And this is the system that people are pleading to expand to coordinator positions? Really?

I understand the motives and arguments of those who believe that the Rooney Rule is necessary to achieve “diversity” in the NFL; in theory it is a worthy goal.

However, in practice a rule like this is not good for the league, in my opinion.

First, it creates a system where minorities are once again reduced to racial tokens in the interviewing process.

I mean, did anyone really believe for a moment that the Eagles weren’t all in on the notion of luring Chip Kelly away from Oregon? So why go through the ruse of interviewing a minority candidate that had no realistic shot at getting the job? I just don’t see where that helps anyone.

Secondly, it paints team owners as some sort of racist old boys club that needs to be forced to give qualified minorities opportunities to advance.

I’m sure that in the bad old days of owners like Jack Kent Cooke that was true, but why should Arthur Blank or Pat Bowlen be held up as those kinds of people, when there has been nothing in their past business practices to suggest such a thing?

I’m sure that was not the intention of the NFL when it promulgated the rule, but just in creating the rule it creates that image.

I mean, why do you need to have a rule requiring minority interviewing if you’re not discriminating? See how that line of logic works? And you can bet there are plenty of people out there saying just that.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Tony Dungy's success in both Tampa Bay and Indianapolis is proof positive that merit is what counts.

Finally, I see this rule as intruding on the one truly great thing about professional sports in America: meritocracy.

Professional sports is the last true meritocracy left in our society whether you want to believe it or not, especially the NFL. It doesn’t matter your race is, where you grew up, what college you attended, or how much money your parents had.

If you want to succeed at that level you have to be good at what you do, period. It works that way on the field and I believe that it works that way in coaching; if you’re good you can do it seemingly forever and if you’re bad you’re going to get the gate.

So why can’t a team owner simply look for the coach that he wants for his team and hire him without being subject to allegations of racism if that coach happens not to be a minority? Why is it treated as a tragedy that Lovie Smith didn’t get a job and Chip Kelly did?

What’s wrong with simply choosing the best person for your particular circumstance and calling it a day? That’s what happens on the field every season and on every day of every season; if you don’t believe me, ask Alex Smith.

I don’t see the lack of minority hires as a reason to ramp up racial bean counting, I simply see it as individual team owners making individual business decisions and hiring those that they consider the best choice. I just don’t have a problem with that.

Like I said before, if it works on the field, let’s see if it can work on the sidelines.

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