N. Jeremi Duru

In this guest editorial N. Jeremi Duru, associate professor of law at Temple University, discusses the impact of the National Football League's effort to create an even playing field for minority coaching candidates. Professor Duru is the author of Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL (Oxford University Press, 2011).

Pause the Criticism and Give the Rooney Rule Some Credit

Every year in December, as the National Football League (NFL) season winds down and the league's strongest teams separate themselves from the also-rans, the annual coaching carousel spins into motion. Team owners who hoped for better seasons jettison their head coaches and search for new ones, and candidates longing for one of the thirty-two NFL head coaching positions zealously interview.

For these few weeks each year, media coverage and water cooler talk focuses just as heavily on coaches as it does on players, and a great deal of it focuses on the NFL's Rooney Rule, which stipulates that every NFL team looking for a head coach must interview at least one candidate of color before making a hire. The rule's detractors, it seems, always outnumber it supporters, and the rule is annually lambasted and lampooned in syntactically exquisite newspaper columns and profanity-laced internet postings alike. The rule is derided as unnecessary and as an insult to candidates of color, and it limps out of every hiring cycle battered but still standing.

The truth is that the Rooney Rule is necessary, and that it benefits head coaching candidates of color far more than it harms them. Moreover, it is the most effective equal employment opportunity effort that any American professional sports league has made in recent history, and the NFL should be applauded for having enacted it and for maintaining it in the face of criticism year after year.

To understand the Rooney Rule and its place in the NFL, one must understand the circumstances prompting its enactment. On 14 January 2002, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fired head coach Tony Dungy. Dungy had worked as an assistant coach in the NFL for sixteen years before landing the Buccaneers position in 1996, and during his six years at the helm he transformed the Buccaneers from an NFL laughingstock into a perennial playoff contender with one of the best defenses in the league. Still, on the heels of three consecutive playoff seasons, one of which nearly ended with a Super Bowl appearance, Dungy was terminated.

Dungy's experience in Tampa Bay reflected the plight of African American head coaches in the NFL at the time. For almost seventy years, from 1921 through the middle of the 1989 season, when Art Shell became the Los Angeles Raiders head coach, there had been none. And the few who managed to land head coaching positions in the years that followed did so after prolonged stints as assistants and seemed to lose their jobs prematurely. It appeared African American head coaches were the last hired and first fired, and with Dungy's departure, there remained only one African American head coach in the thirty-two team NFL.

While the anecdotal evidence of discrimination was disconcerting, the statistical evidence was even more alarming. After Dungy's termination, Dr. Janice Madden, a University of Pennsylvania economics professor, analyzed the win/loss records of all NFL head coaches over the previous fifteen years and then compared the African American head coaches' records with the white head coaches' records. Dr. Madden's conclusion was stark: "No matter how we look at success, black coaches are performing better. The data are consistent with blacks having to be better coaches than the whites in order to get a job as a head coach in the NFL."

According to Dr. Madden's analysis, in their first seasons as head coach of a team, African American head coaches averaged 2.7 more wins than white head coaches. In their seasons before being terminated, African American head coaches averaged 1.3 more wins than white head coaches. And, throughout their tenures, African American head coaches led their teams to an average of more than nine wins per season, while white head coaches led their teams to an average of eight wins per season. Although that one-game differential might initially seem marginal, it is anything but. In a sixteen-game season, one win is often the difference between a playoff berth and the season's end. Moreover, no win is more important than a team's ninth. During the fifteen years that Dr. Madden studied, 60 percent of teams winning nine games made the playoffs, and fewer than 10 percent of teams winning eight games did the same.

The statistics did not suggest that African American head coaches were somehow innately superior to white head coaches. Rather, they suggested that team decision makers held African American head coaching candidates to higher standards than whites, and that African Americans were therefore made to apprentice as assistant coaches for longer than whites. Once hired, the African American coaches' superior experience and expertise showed on the sidelines, and they typically outcoached their opponents.

At the time, all of America's professional sports leagues suffered from a dearth of people of color in positions of power, but in terms of diversity, the other leagues were miles ahead of the NFL. Although the NFL claimed a commitment to equal employment opportunity, Dr. Madden's study cut solidly in the other direction, and two civil rights lawyers, Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie Cochran, began pressing the league for reform. In the face of a litigation threat, and after a number of meetings and a fair measure of internal politicking, the league's owners unanimously agreed to implement diverse candidate slates when searching for head coaches. Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, was among the new procedure's staunchest advocates, and the procedure quickly came to be known as the Rooney Rule.

Within a few seasons, the number of head coaches of color in the league dramatically increased, and for the past few years it has hovered around six or seven. While this increase represents substantial progress, the percentage of players of color in the league (roughly 70 percent) continues to dwarf the percentage of head coaches of color in the league (roughly 20 percent).

The Rooney Rule is by no means perfect. It is a process-oriented rule designed to create an atmosphere in which equal opportunity has a chance to flourish, but if an NFL team's principal decision maker wants to thwart the rule's purpose, nothing prevents that person from doing so. Because there is no way to assess the decision maker's state of mind, there is no way to know whether the decision maker meaningfully considers any given candidate. Sham interviews are, therefore, a possibility, and over the past several years, the NFL has seen its share. For a number of reasons, however, the possibility of sham interviews should not be seen as illegitimating the rule.

First, any candidate is free to decline an interview he believes to be a sham. Several head coaching candidates of color did just that when the Detroit Lions requested to interview them for the team's vacant head coach position in 2003, soon after the Rooney Rule was enacted. The Lions general manager, Matt Millen, had long wanted the San Francisco 49ers' head coach Steve Mariucci to become the Lions' head coach, but with Mariucci seemingly committed to the 49ers, the Lions, after the 2002 season, declared they would retain their then-head coach Marty Mornhinweg.

Shortly thereafter, the 49ers, in a surprise move, fired Mariucci, and the Lions quickly fired Mornhinweg to clear the decks. Millen's obvious desire for Mariucci turned off every coach of color who was contacted about the job, and because the Lions were unable to fulfill the Rooney Rule's mandate, they were penalized by the league.

Second, even when circumstances are ripe for a sham interview, the interview sometimes turns out to be meaningful and successful. If ever a franchise seemed poised to conduct a sham interview under the Rooney Rule, it was the Cincinnati Bengals in 2003. The Bengals' previous head coach, Dick LeBeau, led the team to a horrific .267 winning percentage during almost three years in charge, and because he was known as a "players' coach," all indications were that the Bengals sought a disciplinarian to right the ship. Former Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Tom Coughlin—as strict a disciplinarian as any coach in the league—was available, and by all accounts he was the clear front-runner for the job. Moreover, in the thirty-five-year history of the franchise, the Bengals had never interviewed a person of color for its offensive or defensive coordinator positions (the positions directly under the head coach) or its head coach position.

Despite being one of the league's most respected defensive coordinators, Marvin Lewis had until then received no head coaching offers and few offers to interview. With the Rooney Rule in place, the Bengals interviewed and ultimately hired Lewis, and he proceeded to turn the team around, winning two AFC North division titles and one NFL Coach of the Year award during his tenure thus far in Cincinnati.

A more recent example involves the Pittsburgh Steelers. After Bill Cowher's retirement in 2007, it seemed certain that either Ken Whisenhunt, the Steelers offensive coordinator, or Russ Grimm, the Steelers offensive line coach and assistant head coach, would take over the head coaching reins. But, with the Rooney Rule in place, the Steelers interviewed the young and little-known Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator, Mike Tomlin, and he so impressed the Steelers' brass that he earned the job. Two years later, he led the Steelers to their sixth Super Bowl title.

Third, even when a "Rooney Rule" interview is unsuccessful and is by all appearances a token interview designed to fulfill the Rooney Rule, the interviewee often benefits from the interview. By participating, the candidate gains valuable experience that he can draw upon in subsequent interviews. In addition, because team owners are generally in close communication, news of an impressive interview often spreads quickly around the league, sometimes sparking Team B's interest in a candidate who impressively but unsuccessfully interviewed for Team A's head coaching position.

While the prospect of sitting for what may be a token Rooney Rule interview is obviously unappetizing, this year's hiring speaks to its benefits. Both Leslie Frazier (Minnesota Vikings) and Ron Rivera (Carolina Panthers) landed head coaching positions in January 2011 after interviewing for head coaching positions on several prior occasions. Some of those interviews were viewed by some as token interviews, but Frazier's and Rivera's experience established them as legitimate head coaching candidates, and each is now an NFL head coach.

In addition, the Oakland Raiders promoted their offensive coordinator, Hue Jackson, to head coach, increasing the total number of minority head coaches in the NFL to eight. The Rooney Rule is working. And perhaps the greatest evidence of this is that even as the NFL endures consistent criticism for the Rooney Rule, other organizations have recognized the rule's worth.

For instance, in 2007, the Association of Art Museum Directors approached University of Central Florida's Dr. Richard Lapchick, who was involved in the rule's development, in hopes that a similar rule might help diversify the leadership ranks of the nation's art museums. More recently, the National Urban League approached NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to learn more about the Rooney Rule and ultimately issued a public statement lauding the rule's impact in the NFL and insisting that "Corporate America could well reap similar benefits by following the Rooney Rule model."

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has already begun to reap such benefits. Although the NCAA has refused to adopt a Rooney Rule–like mandate to address its long-standing lack of diversity among head football coaches, the Division I-A Athletic Directors' Association has issued guidelines strongly encouraging Football Bowl Subdivision programs (formerly known as Division I-A football programs) to utilize diverse candidate slates in searching for head coaches. The number of Football Bowl Subdivision head coaches of color has since risen, and after the 2009 season, it doubled from seven to fourteen.

Of course, equal opportunity would likely be better served with a mandate than a suggestion, and while the NCAA remains unwilling to issue such a mandate, the state of Oregon has done just that with respect to its public universities. Oregon state law now requires that administrators at its seven public universities utilize diverse candidate slates when searching for head coaches in all sports as well as athletic directors.

The Rooney Rule is not perfect, and it alone cannot ensure equal opportunity in any organization. But it has made a substantial impact in the NFL, and it is starting to impact broader society. Even if the NFL were to abandon the Rooney Rule today, its legacy is sound and will live on.

Further Reading

Duru, N. Jeremi. Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Lapchick, Richard. Smashing Barriers: Race and Sport in the New Millennium. Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 2001.

Rhoden, William C. Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete. New York: Crown, 2006.

Shropshire, Kenneth L. In Black and White: Race and Sports in America. New York: New York University Press, 1996.

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