Time for NFL to Jettison Rooney Rule

Mike Tomlin photoThe departure of Jeff Fisher as head coach of the Tennessee Titans leaves the team management with the daunting task of finding an adequate replacement while avoiding a conflict with affirmative action’s gift to pro football known as the “Rooney Rule.”

Finalized in 2003 and named after Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who headed the NFL committee leading to its creation, this bylaw stipulates that any team with a head coaching vacancy must interview at least one minority candidate in good faith or face commissioner sanctions.

Defenders say it doesn’t force a team to hire anyone. Formally, that’s true. But it’s a dishonest claim all the same. And the rule itself is unnecessary.

Nobody in his right mind would suggest that blacks can’t run an NFL team – Mike Tomlin, Lovie Smith, Tony Dungy and Mike Singletary (among others) serve notice to the fact they can. And since roughly two-thirds of all active players in any given year are black, one could argue that having a black coach improves morale among certain black players.

But coaching is highly taxing in terms of time, energy and emotion. Not every “best black” may want to give that kind of commitment. What’s more, a team front office might have a certain white in mind as the leading candidate. Why should it have to go through the ritual of interviewing a parade of candidates, regardless of race, if it doesn’t intend to hire any of them?

Meaningless Ritual

It is pure naivete to think the NFL, under pressure of a lawsuit in 2002 by civil-rights attorneys Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri if it didn’t boost the number of head coaches, would hastily institute a racially-motivated search policy unrelated to hiring decisions. Why would the league order all teams with a vacancy to interview at least one nonwhite minority if it didn’t anticipate, and expect, frequent job offers to follow?

The Rooney Rule effectively puts the NFL in the role of mind reader. If a given team goes with a white candidate, the commissioner might conclude the interview with the black candidate(s) was a ruse, mere window dressing intended to avoid a fine or worse. But if that team goes with a black candidate, he may decide to admonish team management anyway because their hearts weren’t really in it the choice. Once hired, of course, there is an implicit proviso that firing a black coach ought to be harder than firing a white coach.

Ironically, it was Dan Rooney who may have provided the best case against the need for the Rooney Rule back when he hired Mike Tomlin (in photo) as Steelers head coach in 2007. “Let me say this,” Rooney said. “Mike Tomlin was not part of the Rooney Rule. We had already interviewed (Chicago Bears defensive coordinator) Ron Rivera, and so that fulfilled the obligation. We went on, had heard about Mike, called him in and talked to him. He was very impressive.” That’s the way things should work. The whole idea of an interview is for an employer to be impressed.

The bottom line is this: If an NFL team wants to hire a white, it should hire a white. If that team wants to hire a black, it should hire a black. Either way, it shouldn’t have to operate under the threat of a punishment by the commissioner’s office or a lawsuit by trophy-hungry litigators.

This op-ed appears today in The Tennessean. A counter-point was provided by Cyrus Mehri and N. Jeremi Duru titled “Rooney Rule Broadens Experience of NFL Coaches, GMs.


The ‘Rooney Rule’: Pro Football’s Affirmative Action Deception