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The Rooney Rule is always a sensitive topic, but NFL owners only have themselves to blame for that

You might not think it’s an issue that minorities aren’t being hired for high-ranking positions at a better rate. But the NFL certainly thinks it’s a big deal, and that’s really all that matters.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

If there’s one topic that often incites the passions of many in any comments section of any article or link published about it on the Internet and/or social media, it’s the Rooney Rule, a rule that was championed by the late Dan Rooney back in 2003.

In case you don’t know, the rule requires all NFL teams with head coaching and/or senior operations/general manager vacancies interview at least one minority candidate.

The rule was tweaked recently and now mandates that, among other things, teams interview at least two external minority candidates for a head coaching position and at least one external minority candidate for a coordinator vacancy.

The original intent of the rule was not to dictate to teams who they should hire. The intent of the rule was to, instead, bring awareness to minority candidates that may have been getting overlooked.

But the results, they just haven’t been there. Case-in-point, the upcoming 2020 NFL season that will include only four minority head coaches and one general manager—the Dolphins Chris Grier.

Again, there’s nothing that incites the passions of folks more than the Rooney Rule, and sports fans are often prone to take it personally while discussing the controversial subject. But with all due respect, it’s really not about what the fans think, same with those in the media. All that matters is that the NFL clearly thinks it’s a problem, so much so, in fact, the powers that be discussed a proposal last week that would have improved a team’s draft positioning if it hired a minority candidate for a high-ranking coaching or executive position.

Was it okay to be against such a proposal without being portrayed in a poor light? Thankfully, many prominent minorities with head coaching experience spoke out against it, such as former Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, who called the proposal “offensive.

And it was an offensive proposal. It’s like the kid down the street who only invites you to play pick-up basketball with him and his friends because you have the nicest ball. While the proposal is offensive, it’s not going to become a reality—the NFL shelved it in favor of the aforementioned tweaks to the Rooney Rule.

Can the rule hurt a team that has good intentions and wants to immediately hire the person it feels is best for the job? Andrew Brandt, a former vice president with the Green Bay Packers and current writer for Sports Illustrated, appeared on Mark Madden’s radio show on 105.9 the X on Tuesday and recalled a conversation he once had with former Colts general manager Bill Polian. The two were discussing the time Tony Dungy was fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers following the 2001 season; the moment Dungy became available, the Colts knew they wanted him and nobody else. Had Dungy been white, however—and had the Rooney Rule already been in effect—Indianapolis would have had to interview a minority candidate first, before offering the job to the person they wanted all along—provided Dungy was still available.

That’s a good point by Brandt, and I’m sure there are a lot of teams that have and will continue to face that dilemma. But why, 17 years after the Rooney Rule was first implemented, aren’t there more minority coaches and executives like Dungy, whose credentials speak for themselves?

When I think of a list of names off of the top of my head, I come up with Dungy, Mike Tomlin, Herman Edwards, Marvin Lewis, the late Dennis Green and, in the case of general managers, Ozzie Newsome. Those men were allowed to establish themselves; once they did, the only thing that came up when evaluating them was their performance.

But considering Art Shell was hired to be the Raiders head coach in 1989—or 14 years before the Rooney Rule was first implemented--that's a rather small list.

During his interview with Madden, Brandt suggested that the best way to improve a minority candidate’s chances was through a stepping-stone approach, where he ultimately works his way up to a coordinator position—often the next step before becoming a head coach. On one hand, that makes sense. But on the other hand, there are countless minority assistant coaches employed by NFL teams each and every year. Yet, they’re not being promoted to coordinator positions—particularly offensive coordinator positions—at a high rate.

According to an article published by The Atlantic in January, 40 percent of head coaches hired in the NFL since 2009 were offensive coordinators. Problem with that: 91 percent of offensive coordinators hired in the NFL over that same time period were white.

Currently, there are two African American offensive coordinators in the NFL—the Buccaneers Byron Leftwich and the Chiefs Eric Bieniemy. Bieniemy has been in charge of Kansas City’s offense since 2018. Not only do the Chiefs have one of the most potent offenses in football, they’re the defending Super Bowl champions. But while Bieniemy, 50, has interviewed for seven head coaching positions over the past few seasons, he has yet to break through.

To reiterate, you might not think it’s a problem. You might think NFL teams should be allowed to hire who they want—and they are. Only question is: Why don’t they seem to want to hire minority candidates at a much higher rate?

You can channel your anger over the Rooney Rule in plenty of different places, but at the end of the day, this is on the NFL owners—they’ve had a century to figure this out and get it right.

Maybe the tweaks to the Rooney Rule will finally lead to some positive results.