Law in Contemporary Society

The Rooney Rule and NFL Coaching Employment

-- By SpencerBecerra - 20 Apr 2022

A Rude Awakening

On February 2, 2022, the National Football League faced a distraction from the upcoming Super Bowl contest between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Los Angeles Rams. Brian Flores, fired in January 2021 as head coach of the Miami Dolphins, filed a class action lawsuit alleging pervasive racial discrimination in head-coach hiring practices in the NFL. The complaint alleges that Flores was fired in part for his unwillingness to go along with Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross’ scheme to pay Flores $100,000 bonuses per thrown game to secure better draft position. Flores further alleges that in late January, the New York Giants conducted sham interviews with him in order to satisfy the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which required all NFL teams with head coach vacancies to interview at least two diverse candidates.

State of Play

The Rooney Rule has come under scrutiny since the filing of the lawsuit. One thing seems clear; the Rooney Rule does not work. Without additional safeguards, the Rooney Rule is toothless. As first steps, the NFL could enforce more substantial penalties, coupled with programs to recruit diverse candidates for “pipeline” coordinator jobs. Unlike quotas, pipeline initiatives would directly benefit players who already have a stake in the NFL and allow teams to hire familiar, experienced individuals from within their own ranks.

Flores’ allegations will be difficult to prove, and the NFL has shown itself quite capable of continuing to grow its business while fending off multiple high-profile lawsuits . But Flores’ list of suggestions indicates his main goal is likely to generate momentum for changes that come from within the NFL. I also suspect, based on his return to the league even with his lawsuit pending, that Flores loves football enough to return despite the indignities. Changes to the NFL’s business are a legitimate way to give Flores and others similarly situated a fair shot at a career in a sport that they are passionate about.

The Rooney Rule's Background

The Rooney Rule was adopted in 2003 at the recommendation of the Diversity Committee, created by the NFL to tackle the persistence of White dominance in head coaching positions. In addition to diversity requirements for head coach interviews, the NFL now mandates teams to interview at least two diverse candidates for general manager, assistant coach, and other senior front office positions, as well as one woman for head coaching jobs. The NFL has incentivized progress by granting teams compensatory third-round draft picks for any diverse head coach or coordinator lost to another team.

The Rooney Rule has No Effect on Diverse Hiring

Overall, the Rooney Rule has been ineffective at increasing diversity in the ranks of targeted positions. Going into the 2022-2023 season, the NFL has one Black coach of thirty-two total, less than the league had when the rule was first instituted in 2003; only six of thirty-two general managers are Black. Coordinator positions, which are pipelines to eventual head coach positions, show similar disparities with four Black offensive coordinators (12.5% of total) and eleven Black defensive coordinators (34% of total) currently holding positions. Spotty enforcement of the Rooney Rule is partly to blame. After the NFL expanded the Rooney Rule to mandate two diverse interviews for senior front office positions, the Washington Commanders seemed to openly flout it without consequence. Flores’ allegations point further to unserious interviews which technically comply with the Rule but do not actually give Black candidates a shot at landing a job. Furthermore, violations of the rule are difficult to prove, as teams can avoid penalty by simply providing their ostensible reasons for not hiring Black candidates.

Proposed Changes

Despite the Rooney Rule’s ineffectiveness, there is little consensus on what reforms could better improve outcomes for Black coaching candidates. For his part, Flores advocates for creating a funding committee to increase black team ownership, involving select Black players and coaches in the interview process, requiring objective written assessments to accompany hiring and firing decisions, and draft incentives for hiring Black coaches. These suggestions address the lack of incentives from an all-White ownership structure to hire Black coaches.While increasing Black team ownership rates may prove effective, achieving this result in a league where teams only change hands in sporadic, multi-billion dollar deals would likely make for a decades-long project. Quicker remedies are available; for example, the NFL could penalize non-compliant teams by eliminating draft picks instead of levying fines, which wealthy owners are always willing and able to pay. Meanwhile, other professional sports leagues can provide models for non-punitive solutions. If the NFL proves unwilling to enforce the Rooney Rule with serious penalties, then coaches and players can insist on implementing pipeline programs which prioritize former players in the hiring process. One place to turn for inspiration is the National Basketball Association, which has a comparable 74% Black player demographic to the NFL’s 70%. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has resisted any imposition of a Rooney Rule copycat; instead, the NBA relies on development programs like the NBA Coaches Equality Initiative which creates an effective pipeline from playing on a team to working either as a coach or in a managerial position. Portland Trailblazers head coach and former player Chauncey Billups credits some of this success to the NBA Players’ Association, which unlike the NFL Players’ Association has exercised its clout to advocate for aggressive changes in league policy. Under threat of lockout, NFLPA members could insist on opportunities to be placed in such a program at the time of their contract’s termination or their retirement. Because 80% of head coaches start as coordinators, and 70% of NFL players are Black, this would likely prove effective. These programs could be further incentivized with draft picks awarded per head coaches hired out of the pool of participating former players.

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r3 - 01 Jun 2022 - 01:16:43 - SpencerBecerra
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