Monday, January 6, 2014

A Minimalist’s Approach To Diversity

As published in The County Times ( in Jan 2010

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

In 2003 the NFL, in an effort to promote greater (or any semblance of) diversity in its head coaching ranks, adopted the Rooney Rule.  The rule, named after Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, required NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate before filling a head coaching vacancy.  Prior to its inception, there had never been more than three standing minority head coaches; since 2005 there haven’t been less than 6.  That is undeniable progress.  Is it all because of the Rooney Rule?  Maybe not, but it also probably wouldn’t happened without it.  The bottom line is, the Rooney Rule has worked.

Still, despite these accomplishments, I’m going to quibble a bit with success.  I acknowledge NFL teams are, save for the Green Bay Packers, privately owned entities that should, to some extent, retain the right to hire and fire as they choose.  But is that free reign over human resources, in a sport with such social significance, also carte blanche authority to conduct a non-competitive hiring process?  (File that question for moment.)  The fact of the matter is the NFL has lagged woefully behind professional baseball and basketball in minority head coaching opportunities.  It is a non-story when a MLB or NBA team hires a minority head coach.  Yet, when two African American coaches meet in the Superbowl – as they did when Indianapolis defeated Chicago in Superbowl XLI – it’s the lead story.  By comparison, I vividly remember Boston Celtics, led by head coach K.C. Jones, beating the “Showtime“ Lakers in the NBA Finals.  What I don’t remember is Jones’ race (African American) being a big issue.  The significance of that comparison is Superbowl XLI was played in February 2007 while Jones’ Celtics beat the Lakers in the 1986 NBA Finals.  Think about that: lead issue in 2007 (NFL) vs. footnote in 1986 (NBA).  To further illustrate the NFL’s sluggish evolution, look at our local teams.  The Skins, since arriving in D.C. in 1937, have had 1 minority head coach – Terry Robiskie – and it was on an interim basis.  Conversely, the Nationals and Wizards combined have had 7 minority head coaches since 2000.     

With this deficient resume, you’d think the NFL would be serious about its commitment to the Rooney Rule.  Yet if this off-season’s coaching fills in Washington and Seattle are any indication, the NFL is more interested in satisfying the letter of the Rooney Rule than it is truly embracing its spirit.  At season’s end, the Skins and Seahawks radar-locked on and swiftly hired Mike Shanahan and Pete Carroll - two well qualified, deserving candidates.  To clear a path through the Rooney Rule so they could hire the objects of their affection, the Skins interviewed then defensive assistant Jerry Gray and Seattle interviewed Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.  At each team’s request, the NFL reviewed and determined that the obligatory interviews with Gray and Frazer were good enough to check the Rooney Rule block.  They shouldn’t have been.  Yes, teams should ultimately be able to select the best candidate.  But were Shanahan and Carroll the best?  We don’t really know since neither was selected as part of a deliberative process.  What we do know is the exclusive process of both teams yielded coaches that, ethnically, are a heck of a lot like the large majority of other NFL coaches.  By securing some minimal compliance with the Rooney Rule, Washington and Seattle missed an opportunity, and in my opinion skirted their responsibility, to promote diversity among NFL coaches.  Historically though, when it comes to equal opportunity, we’ve come to expect more than the bare minimum from the world of sports.     

To answer the question I asked earlier, NFL teams should not be able to hire a head coach through a blatantly non-competitive process; and without question, neither Gray nor Frazier had any chance of being hired.  The NFL simply has not demonstrated an ability, on its own accord, to achieve any acceptable level of diversity within its head coaching ranks.  The NFL would likely dispute that; but I’d then ask why they needed a Rooney Rule in the first place.

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