Amending the Rooney Rule

Photo courtesy of Alliance Rod Graves

In 1992 Dennis Green was hired by the Minnesota Vikings, becoming the second Black head coach in the modern era of the NFL. Art Shell of the Oakland Raiders was the first, and before that it was Fritz Pollard in 1921, the very first Black coach in the NFL.

Last year football celebrated 100 years of the NFL. The Rooney Rule is about creating fairness by making certain that Black men and other minorities have the opportunity for head coaching jobs in the NFL. Back In 1993, the Vikings had the NFL’s number-one defense. Tony Dungy, after being defensive coordinator with the Minnesota Vikings for two years, was hired by Tampa Bay as head coach.

The Rooney Rule is named after Daniel Rooney, the late chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL Diversity and Inclusion Committee. The spirit of the Rooney Rule has been circumvented in recent years. The hiring process is not fair and that is no secret.

Last week the NFL proposed rewarding teams for hiring minorities with draft positions. Former Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis had strong feelings about the proposal.

“It was definitely offensive,” said Lewis. “It was like having Jim Crow laws.” Former Baltimore Ravens G.M. Ozzie Newsome, the first Black general manager in NFL history, said, “Am I concerned about the lack of hiring? Yes I am, but I fully understand there is a sincere effort to change the hiring process.”

Rod Graves, former G.M. of the Arizona Cardinals, hired Green in 2004 as head coach, and they drafted Larry Fitzgerald, Jr. that same year with a number-three pick, the highest in Cardinals history. What a man, currently the executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance. He spoke with me about action recently to strengthen the Rooney Rule.

“I have been very fortunate to gain a unique perspective from a career standpoint,” Graves said. “I started in the NFL with the Chicago Bears as a road scout. I eventually became a director at the college level, then moved to a director of player personnel position.

“Mr. Bill Bidwell, owner of the Cardinals, hired me to be his assistant. Assistant to the president. Then I became vice president of football operations, then general manager.”

Asked his thoughts on the proposed amendment to strengthen the Rooney Rule, Graves said, “The proposals that were submitted by the league and the initiatives that were passed were as comprehensive of a diversity program that we’ve ever seen coming out of the league.”

Clearly it’s 2020 and the success and intent of the spirit of the Rooney Rule in recent years has been circumvented. Graves said, “That points to me the fact that they [the NFL] recognize number one that we have a problem. And the current hiring system must not evolve or continue to exist.

I pointed out that one of the proposals that was submitted and made public was about mobility. Graves said, “That did pass. It allows assistant coaches to be able to take interviews for coordinator roles and not be denied even if they are under contract.

“I think that’s a huge step for opening the door for more mobility among people of color,” Graves continued. “Obviously the rule works for everyone, but we certainly believe that it’s going to bring more opportunities for coaches to move up and experience the career growth we hoped for.”

This is significant progress in my view. Thirty-two teams have different approaches to what’s best for their teams. Sometimes an owner’s comfort level with the process can hurt the applicant, and what’s fair based on race and what’s right gets lost.
This is a significant step forward and recognition that something had to be done, because in recent years it’s been an embarrassment.

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