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The Rooney Rule


Examining the past twenty years of race in the NFL coaching ranks

@BreakTheHuddle

Any controversy surrounding the Rooney Rule in recent years has been less than fiery – criticisms boil to the surface here and there, but it is one of the NFL’s less divisive issues. The only people who bring it up in a negative light are those concerned about ‘affirmative action’ issues (which the Rule isn’t) or those who believe that we, as a culture, ought to do away with such rules and regulations in an attempt to move past the issue of race and gender equity in the workplace.

This analysis of the Rooney Rule is not meant to be broad, sweeping social commentary – I am a sportswriter, after all, and I ought to stick to the lighter side of things, lest I get into trouble. Below are the facts of the decade before the Rooney Rule and the near decade since – statistics about hires, a few anecdotes, and hopefully some perspective on why I believe the Rooney Rule is great for the NFL and should not be done away with any time soon.

Frederick Douglass (Fritz) Pollard (1894-1986) was a player-coach for the now defunct Akron Pros in 1921. He was the only minority head coach in NFL history until 1979, when the Raiders hired Tom Flores.

From the start of the 1993 season through the 2001-02 NFL season, 74 coaching changes were made. Of those 74 job changes, 6 positions were filled with minorities – and only 4 different men constituted that group: Ray Rhodes (Eagles, Packers), Tony Dungy (Buccaneers, Colts), Herm Edwards (Jets), and Terry Robiskie, an interim head coach with the Redskins at the end of the 2000-01 season. The only other minority head coaches in football history were Fritz Pollard (way back in 1921), Denny Green of the Vikings, Art Shell of the Raiders and Tom Flores of the Seattle Seahawks.

The Rooney Rule went into effect during the 2002-03 offseason and states, simply, that any team filling a head coaching vacancy must interview a minority candidate during the job search. Caveats are made for teams filling the position from within (so long as the one being promoted is a minority, a la Mike Singletary or Leslie Frazier).

In the 77 coaching changes made from the 2002-03 offseason until today, 19 have been filled by minorities. That’s more than a threefold jump, from 8.1% (from the previous decade) to 24.6% being minority hires. They were: Denny Green (Cardinals), Ron Rivera (Panthers), Lovie Smith (Bears), Marvin Lewis (Bengals), Romeo Crennel (Browns, Chiefs), Jim Caldwell (Colts), Herm Edwards (Chiefs), Leslie Frazier (Vikings), Hue Jackson and Art Shell (Raiders), Mike Tomlin (Steelers), Mike Singletary (49ers), Raheem Morris (Buccaneers), and interim coaches Emmitt Thomas (Falcons), Perry Fewell (Bills), Terry Robiskie (Browns), Eric Studesville (Broncos) and Mel Tucker (Jaguars).

It was an unprecedented spike in the hiring of minority coaches, yet no team gave public credence to the Rooney Rule – not even the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose owner (Art Rooney) was the namesake of the rule. When the team hired Mike Tomlin before the 2007 season, they had already satisfied the Rooney Rule by interviewing Ron Rivera. Critics point to this as an example of why the rule is antiquated, but the results are too jarring to ignore – the overall picture the statistics paint should not be dismissed due to anecdotes.

While the problem of the “sham” interview, in which teams bring in minority candidates knowing full well they have no chance at the position, is a concern, that is no reason to end the Rooney Rule.  No less an authority than Tony Dungy dismisses the “token interview” notion altogether, saying that “the objective of the interviewee was learning about the process… [I] went through a number of interviews that, from the outside, might have looked futile, but took each experience as a lesson learned.”

Is it possible that the shift in the hiring of minority coaches wasn’t simply unique to the NFL, and was in fact seen in other sports? Perhaps, rather than a rule, what sparred the hiring of more minority coaches was simply the inevitable tide of history, a more progressive time when age-old barriers such as race, religion and nationality become less significant?

A look at the figures from Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association does not support such a hypothesis. While each of those leagues experienced small rises in the numbers of minority coaches, neither came close to the meteoric rise seen in the NFL – in part because the minority representation wasn’t nearly as low in the first place.

When examined over the same time frame used for the NFL (before and after the Rooney Rule), it was discovered that the NBA saw a 3% rise in minority coaches in the most recent decade (from 36% to 39%) and Major League Baseball experienced a 6% increase (from 16% to 22%).(See the full chart below.)Sure, the more “enlightened” times we are currently living in may have something to do with it, but such a phenomenon cannot reasonably explain a threefold increase like we saw in the NFL.

League Pre-Rooney minority hires Post-Rooney minority hires Change
NFL 6 of 74 (8.1%) 19 of 77 (24.6%) +16.5%
NBA 41 of 113 (36%) 47 of 119 (39%) +3%
MLB 14 of 86 (16%) 19 of 87 (22%) +6%

It’s natural for us to want to pat ourselves on the back and congratulate us all on a job well done. Minorities are much better represented in present-day professional coaching ranks than in the past, but we are not at the finish line. It would be nice to believe that all job positions – both inside and outside of sports – would be filled with the most qualified individual perceived to be the best fit, without regards to race, religion or gender. But to dismiss the rule based on these ideals would be living in a fantasy world.

The low level of minority representation in the NFL through the 2002 season was an embarrassment to the league. The NFL did what was necessary to try and fix the problem – and while the results may not be perfect, while there are side effects that leave us wanting, now is not the time to pull the plug that affords opportunities to those who deserve it. Numbers describe the increase, but there is no “magic number” which will let us know the NFL has reached its goal. But why end something that has a chance to help so many? Why not require teams to at least consider a minority candidate?

Keep the Rooney Rule alive, at least for the foreseeable future. Its benefits far outweigh its side effects.

BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!

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2 Responses

  1. A lot of good info. I like the back stories sometimes. Keep it going!

    • Thanks! It was sort of a random byproduct of that unholy mess I published last week about recycled coaches. This was more succinct and was much, much better.

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