The Rooney Rule was not created to be an obstacle to hirings, either on NFL sidelines or in front offices. Yet that’s exactly how it appears teams are viewing it. Deepen the pool of candidates? No, check off a box before grabbing the guy they wanted all along.
The Raiders are sending that perception all over the football world in their reported attempt to hire Jon Gruden as head coach. The Browns sent the same perception last month when they hired John Dorsey as general manager. If they weren’t actually sidestepping the league rule by creating window-dressing job interviews with token candidates, they did a great impression of it.
The NFL gave the Browns a pass, on the absolute thinnest of arguments, even as John Wooten of the Fritz Pollard Alliance said to USA Today of the Browns’ process: “I am livid that the Browns would totally ignore the work all of us do to make the Rooney Rule meaningful.”
Sham interviews drain the rule of all its meaning. Yet there’s no way any non-white candidate the Raiders interview now in the middle of their Gruden negotiations can possibly be taken seriously.
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It’s the same problem the NFL had before the rule was put in place in 2003, and at various times since. Baseball runs into the same problem; their total of minority managers has risen to four, from three last season, but still far down from 10 in 2009. College football encounters it regularly, too. Baseball has a version of the Rooney Rule. The NCAA does not.
Failing to hire diverse candidates is problematic enough. The Fritz Pollard people make the effort to serve teams a list of candidates every hiring season. They fight constantly against impediments like the recent swerve toward head coaches with offensive play-calling experience, positions from which minority coaches are steered away.
Yet that’s small potatoes compared to organizations openly mocking the spirit and letter of the rule itself, circling back to cross off “Rooney Rule interview” before planning the big introductory press conference. The Browns reportedly weren’t even transparent about their check-the-box interview. Similarly, info about the Raiders’ dance with Gruden is all over the place, but not a word about how they’ll dodge NFL discipline, the way the Lions could not in 2003 when they ignored the rule in hiring Steve Mariucci.
The ugly ironies in the recent cases are overwhelming. Al Davis, the late father of current Raiders owner Mark Davis, never needed a league rule to hire Tom Flores, Art Shell or Amy Trask. Also, Reggie McKenzie, the Raiders’ general manager, who got his job the old-fashioned way — paid his dues for years, then got a chance from his old organization — spoke out against token interviews “just to satisfy the rule.”
He said that in 2013, when the NFL managed to hire zero minority candidates for eight head-coaching and seven general manager openings that offseason. The lowlights: The Chiefs essentially pulled a Raiders in hiring ex-Eagles coach Andy Reid after just four days, while meeting the minimum Rooney Rule requirements; and the offensive coordinator of the Super Bowl-champion Ravens, Jim Caldwell, did not get a single interview.
As for the Browns, team owner Jimmy Haslam fired one of the few minority general managers in the league, Sashi Brown, to accelerate his drive to get Dorsey before another team did. Because this isn’t a zero-sum game, Haslam’s insistence on keeping his African-American head coach, Hue Jackson (who got an overdue second chance as a head coach two seasons ago), doesn’t balance out his walking on the edge of the rule on his front-office ploy.
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Meanwhile, it is baffling how the Raiders (one winning season in their last 16) and Browns (two winning seasons out of 19) can justify sticking to the same old hiring routines at the expense of an explicit policy aimed at altering those routines.
Back in 2016, when pioneering head coach Dennis Green died, his role in opening previously-locked doors to NFL coaching was lauded. The recent shenanigans with the Raiders and Browns, though, are a reminder that the NFL runs in place more than it moves forward on this.
Either teams want to follow the Rooney Rule, or they don’t.
If they don’t, there should be consequences … beyond the ones they keep suffering on the field, that is.