The 2018 NFL season began in September with eight minority head coaches in the NFL, including seven black head coaches, the most in league history. But by the start of 2019, only two black head coaches (Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Anthony Lynn with the San Diego Charges) and one Latino head coach (Ron Rivera of the Carolina Panthers) remain.
In the last four months, eight coaches lost their job either during or immediately after the regular season. Five of those coaches were black. It’s an alarming statistic, particularly considering the fact that 70 percent of NFL players are black. And it’s part of a problem the NFL would like you to believe it has already addressed.
In 2003, the league implemented the so-called Rooney Rule, a groundbreaking guideline to attempt to increase the diversity in NFL head coaches. The rule — named after former Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who is credited with spearheading the campaign — requires NFL owners to interview at least one ethnic minority candidate for head coach and general manager when those positions open up.
But 15 years later, and after a Black Monday that disproportionately impacted black head coaches, it’s necessary to take a deeper look at the rule. Is it necessary? Does is work? And, if it is necessary and effective, why does the outlook for minority coaches still look so bleak?
First of all, yes, the Rooney Rule was — and is — absolutely necessary. Before the Rooney Rule was implemented, the largest number of black head coaches in the NFL in any season was three.
In 2009, a report by Janice Fanning Madden and Matthew Ruther at the University of Pennsylvania concluded that between 1990 and 2002, black head coaches had to be significantly better than their white counterparts in order to be hired as a coach in the NFL.
Additionally, the report found that black coaches in that era were more likely to be fired, given comparable records to white coaches.
“NFL teams are not consciously rejecting African American coaches, but are unconsciously or implicitly discounting them in the presence of uncertainty and ambiguity as to who will be a successful coach for the initial hire as an NFL head coach,” Madden concluded.
Within a few years after the Rooney Rule was implemented, the number of black coaches in the NFL had more than doubled, to seven. In 2010, Madden and Ruther looked at whether the Rooney Rule had “leveled the field” for black head coaching candidates in the NFL. They found that between 2003-2009, the achievement gap was mostly eliminated, and that successful black and white head coaching candidates had to meet “comparable performance standards.”
So, the rule definitely got off to a promising start. However, in the past few years, the effectiveness of the rule has seemingly plateaued. This year, the Fritz Pollard Alliance — the group that helps oversee compliance with the Rooney Rule — worked with the NFL to strengthen the rule. The changes were announced in December.
The reinforced Rooney Rule makes a few key changes, some of which appear to be a direct response to the Oakland Raiders making a mockery of the rule last year during their head coaching “search” that began and ended with Jon Gruden.
First of all, the updated rule formalizes the requirement that the person in charge of hiring has to be the one who interviews a minority candidate. Secondly, it imposes stiffer obligations for teams to record data about the interviewing process, so that the Rooney Rule can be better enforced. And, perhaps most importantly, the new rule establishes a Career Development Advisory Panel, a list of viable minority head coaching candidates approved by the NFL and the Fritz Pollard Alliance. The purpose of this list is to make sure that team owners aren’t merely walking down the hall at their facility and “interviewing” the first minority they see in order to comply with the Rooney Rule, something that teams have done from time to time. If a team is going to interview a diverse candidate who is already employed by their club, that candidate must come from the list of viable candidates, which consists primarily of offensive and defensive coordinators, college head coaches, and former head coaches.
Cyrus Mehri, counsel for the Fritz Pollard Alliance, feels extremely positive about these changes.
“Going forward, the Rooney Rule is going to be going on all cylinders, which is something we haven’t had before. We’ve had it on most cylinders, but not all cylinders,” Mehri told ThinkProgress.
But there are a couple of things the new Rooney Rule doesn’t take care of. First of all, while it does now “strongly urge” clubs to interview multiple minority candidates for each open position, it doesn’t require them to do so. This is disappointing, because recent studies found that interviewing multiple minority candidates for each open position is a crucial step when it comes to establishing a diverse workforce.
In 2018, a Harvard Business Review paper looked at the candidates interviewed for the 35 head coaching positions open in the NFL between 2013-2017. Over that time period, 29 white men were hired, compared to only six black men.
This study found that increasing the number of black candidates interviewed drastically improved the chances of a black candidate being hired. In 22 instances between 2013-2017, owners only interviewed one black coach in their search. Only one of those owners hired a black coach, which was about 5 percent. However, in 12 instances, two or more black coaches were interviewed for the head coaching position. Four of those owners — 33 percent — ended up hiring a black coach.
“There is little doubt that the Rooney Rule brought change to the NFL: It changed the culture and increased awareness about the lack of ethnic diversity at the top of the league,” the HBR paper concluded. “But concerns that progress has been too slow … can be explained by the fact that interviewing one African American head coach is simply not enough.”
Then, there’s the pipepline problem. The Rooney Rule only applies directly to the two top jobs at an organization, head coach and general manager. It has not been officially extended to apply to offensive and defensive coordinators, or any of the other assistant coaching positions on staff. And lower down on the coaching ladder, bias remains rampant. In 2016, research from professors at Georgetown, George Washington, Emory and Iowa State University, found that white position coaches and assistants in the league are more than two times as likely to be promoted to coordinator than their black counterparts, regardless of background, experience, or performance.
This discrepancy is particularly blatant on the offensive side of the ball — which is a major problem, considering offensive-minded head coaching candidates are particularly sought after in today’s NFL. There are currently only two black offensive coordinators — Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and Byron Leftwich of the Arizona Cardinals. In 2016, ESPN found that “80 of the NFL’s current 85 offensive coordinators, quarterbacks coaches and offensive quality control coaches are white, including all 37 with the word “quarterback” in their titles.” This past season, there were four black quarterback coaches throughout the league, including Leftwich, who was promoted to OC midway through the season.
Leftwich’s rise actually shows the most promising way forward for the NFL. He was a quarterback in the NFL for over a decade before making the transition to coaching, and there has been an increase in opportunities for black men to play the quarterback position over the past 15 years. That alone will increase the pool, since many offensive-minded coaches are former quarterbacks themselves. But most importantly, former Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians directly recruited Leftwich to his coaching staff after seeing how well he understood the game and communicated during his playing days. In fact, Arians made it his mission to recruit former players to his coaching staff, and to provide pathways such as fellowships and internships designed specifically for minorities and/or former players.
“He’ll be a head coach early and fast,” Arians said of the 37-year-old Leftwich in 2017.
Going forward, these deliberate recruiting measures on the lower rungs of the coaching ladder are going to have to go hand-in-hand with a strengthened Rooney Rule in order to improve diversity in the coaching ranks and beyond.
After all, this is a league with only two owners of color, neither of whom are black. This is a league that is blackballing Colin Kaepernick for protesting systemic racism and police brutality, and where an owner infamously referred to players as “inmates.” One rule alone can’t solve all of the systemic problems that led us to the current status quo, and eradicate all of the conscious and unconscious biases that still exist. But that’s not a reason for anyone to stop trying.