Rooney Rule Isn’t the Problem, White Privilege Is

For years there has been talk about the relevance and necessity of the Rooney Rule. The real issue facing the NFL, however, is the need to maintain the status quo: to keep in place the white privilege that has existed for years.

White privilege allows owners and general managers to hire who they want without doing a thorough search of all candidates and without even doing the bare minimum. The Rooney Rule mandates that teams must seriously interview at least one person from an underrepresented ethnic group for any head coach or senior football operations position. While that task does not sound too demanding, white privilege continues to interfere.

When ESPN ran the headline ‘Anthony Lynn, Bills’ black offensive coordinator against Rooney Rule,’ it seemed troubling at first glance. It was disappointing reading that a black coach is admonishing the rule set in place to assist him. It exists in the same vein of black Republicans like Ben Carson being against any type of race-based affirmative action policies meant to aid a historically oppressed ethnic group in which he personally belongs.

The beginning of the article reads as though Lynn, who has been interviewed and passed over for a number of head coaching positions in the past few seasons, believes that the Rooney Rule should not exist. “Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn… says he is opposed to the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate.”

After reading further, however, Lynn’s shares his true sentiments about the rule.

I think it’s good to get in front of the decision-makers and let them hear what you have to say. But at the same time, I think some people take advantage of it. I’m not for it. Hire the best man for the job. That’s all I want.”

These conversations about the rule’s validity and necessity resurface every year, usually around hiring and firing time. The proponents of the rule state that hiring of underrepresented coaches has increased drastically since its implementation. Fourteen coaches of color were hired since the rule’s enactment in 2003. In the previous 12 seasons, there had been only six hires. Unfortunately, executives every year use loopholes in the system to skirt the rule’s original mandate, bringing about undue scrutiny. They interview assistants of color, even though they have no viable chance at landing the position. This is what is most infuriating about the Rooney Rule. When Lynn says he isn’t “for it,” he isn’t condemning the rule in its entirety. He is merely echoing the sentiment of many coaches stemming from a place of exclusion.

The league struggles to find an answer to why teams are choosing to eschew the Rooney Rule every offseason. The solution is not as complex as most writers and football pundits would lead people to believe.

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In May, The Undefeated published this article discussing ideas aimed at expanding the Rooney Rule, reaching a larger pool of qualified persons of color to serve as head coaches and executives. The article accurately describes that the methods teams use to circumvent the rule in favor of their “desired candidate”:

“Unfortunately for the NFL, the public perception is that sham interviews are integral to the league’s culture. Invariably each season, rumors have swirled that some teams interviewed African-American candidates only to comply with the rule. In January, the timing and execution of the Philadelphia Eagles’ hiring of new coach Doug Pederson raised questions about whether they had violated the spirit of the rule. The Eagles interviewed Duce Staley, a former Philadelphia player and current assistant coach on the team. Staley had never been a coordinator and only served as a position coach for three seasons. To many league observers, it appeared the Eagles had skirted the rule by interviewing an in-house candidate who obviously lacked the experience to be a head coach.”

This is exactly what Lynn was referring to in his statement. He wasn’t criticizing the rule. What he was referencing was what he sees. What he knows. That no matter how qualified he actually is, he goes into many interviews with no real chance because he simply doesn’t operate in the management sphere. A sphere that exists in, and because of, white privilege.

White privilege allows white head coaches, executives, and head coaches-in-waiting to be measured by a separate set of criteria than their black and Latino counterparts. When the New York Daily News questions why white head coaches are allowed to fail more than black head coaches, one has to look no further than the system in which all coaches exist. The first black head coach was hired in 1989 — Hall of Fame offensive tackle and Raiders legend Art Shell — and it took over a decade for anyone to realize that a lack of hiring persons of color was even an issue. While almost 70 percent of the NFL players are black, only six head coaches are persons of color (Anthony Lynn was just named interim head coach of the Buffalo Bills for Week 17).

Even though Mike Tomlin has led his team to a Super Bowl victory, critics still question his legitimacy as a head coach.

White privilege allows Steelers legend Terry Bradshaw to scrutinize and challenge the credentials of Super Bowl winning head coach Mike Tomlin, and refer to him as a “cheerleader guy,” while absolving white head coaches with less of a resume. Bradshaw’s insult invalidated all of Tomlin’s hard work in leading his franchise. It is true that Tomlin does not serve as the offensive or defensive coordinator calling plays during the game. Yet, the mark of a true leader isn’t to micromanage all aspects the day of. It is to put every player and person on your staff in the best position to succeed.

When ESPN senior writer Mike Sando wrote that “minority hiring has stalled,” it isn’t due to a lack of candidates, nor a problem with the Rooney Rule. The problem stems from what Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy described in the article, seeing teams sidestep the policy. “It seems like in the last few years, people haven’t really done what the rule was designed for. It has become, ‘Just let me talk to a couple minority coaches very quickly so I can go about the business of hiring the person I really want to hire anyway.'”

The NFL is right. Something needs to be done to ensure the Rooney Rule is working effectively. Unfortunately anything short of a mandated hiring quota or increasing the minimum number of necessary minority interviews, making changes becomes very difficult. Roger Goodell needs to work very closely with the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the organization charged with oversight of the NFL’s minority hiring policies, to better educate owners and current executives to their own implicit biases.

Until the league starts at the beginning and address the very white elephant in the room, the Rooney Rule will continue to be rendered ineffective.

And that would be a shame.

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