The NFL, Its Rooney Rule, and Knowing When To Cry Wolf
As a white male, any time you venture near the subject of race, you know you're bleeding in blue water.
So let's be clear about this—I've got no problem with the Rooney Rule that requires National Football League franchises to interview at least one minority candidate for any vacant head coaching positions (and certain other senior football positions).
It's a good rule if for no other reason than it sends the message that the NFL is serious about equal opportunity throughout the organizational food chain. Even the most Darwinian amongst us must admit it's a bit awkward when the faces on the field are basically minorities and the faces from the sideline up to the owner's box are basically white.
Let's make the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons of the world break a sweat for material.
But I think we also can agree it's a bizarre rule and needs to be treated as such (read: carefully).
For instance, everyone acknowledges the Rooney Rule is a good idea, but nobody can admit it has had any effect.
Think about it: Woe be to the moron who says, "You know, I wouldn't have hired my minority head coach if I hadn't been forced to interview him." That's probably not going over too well in the locker room. Or on the field. Or in the press.
For harmony's sake, every organization that hires a minority coach must deny the wonderful rule played any part in the decision.
When even acknowledging something as a positive is problematic, you know you're in peculiarly volatile territory.
Additionally, there will be times the Rooney Rule necessarily yet inadvertently slaps those it's meant to help right in the face.
Take the situation in Seattle.
Nobody should blame the Seahawks franchise for prostrating itself before Pete Carroll. The guy has a decent NFL track record, and he's a force on the West Coast. It's difficult to appreciate if you're not out here, and I'm not pretending it makes any sense, but Carroll's name is gold for many who have a view of the Pacific Ocean (for the record, I've never sipped the Kool-Aid).
Whether it works or not, Seattle will enjoy an offseason of buzz, and that seems to be half the battle these days.
Consequently, Pete Carroll was a very good fit for the Seattle Seahawks and their natural first choice, but he happens to be white. That meant the powers-that-be in Starbucks City had to run around trying to honor the Rooney Rule with a token interview of a minority, which stinks for everyone involved.
Especially the interviewee.
If you think Pete Carroll is a stretch for the example and Seattle remains culpable, fine.
Instead, imagine Bill Cowher decides he's had enough of the CBS studio and wants to blow a whistle again. That's a Super Bowl champion and the face of one of the League's most storied franchises for 15 years, and he's also white.
EVERY minority interviewed while Cowher sat on the fence would be merely an exercise to satisfy the rule because Cowher would be everyone's No. 1.
But what's the alternative with such a statute in place?
The point is that you can't expect a franchise to pass on what it feels is an ideal match simply because he is the wrong race according to rule. I doubt that's the spirit Dan Rooney wanted to inspire.
The minute the League enacted the Rooney Rule, it ensured some minority candidates would get screwed by it when a particularly desirable white commodity became available.
Finally, take a look at the head coaching ranks. There are 32 such jobs in the NFL, and six are currently occupied by minorities (all black men):
1. Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals, who was just named the Associated Press Coach of the Year.
2. Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who already has a Super Bowl title to his credit.
3. Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears, who is apparently turning his calamitous Super Bowl appearance into quite a bit of leash.
4. Jim Caldwell of the Indianapolis Colts, who might very well be on the way to his own ring.
5. Mike Singletary of the San Francisco 49ers, who is in the middle of reviving our once proud empire.
6. Raheem Morris of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who got off to a ragged start before rallying the troops (kind of) at the end.
Six of 32 doesn't sound like much and, given the racial composition of the athletes playing on the Sunday gridiron, it isn't.
Nevertheless, it represents over 18 percent of the head coaching population, and that means black head coaches are actually over-represented as compared to the racial demographics of American society at large. There, black Americans account for less than 15 percent of the population (as of 2008).
Even if one of the six previously mentioned gentlemen catches the axe before another minority gets the keys to his own team, the favorable social comparison holds.
Furthermore, the Steelers' and Colts' top spots were straight up handed to Tomlin and Caldwell, respectively. Both deserved the honor and have proven more than worthy of it, but it stills bear mentioning that those are two of the choicest jobs in the modern NFL. It's not as if minorities are only getting their shots at the dregs.
In other words, the Rooney Rule looks a little redundant from some angles.
Again, none of the above is meant to advocate for its demise. As I said, it's a good and important rule, even if uniquely troublesome in spots.
However, this is a plea for a little discretion and restraint when you look at its consequences.
Not all violations are created equally—some are simply the nature of the beast while others are reason for genuine outrage.
Which makes taking the time to appreciate the difference all the more crucial.
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