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Rooney Rule needs some tweaking

Broadening its scope and doing away with ‘sham’ interviews will help. Andrew Brandt

Print This December 23, 2009, 02:05 PM EST

The Rooney Rule – spearheaded by Steelers owner Dan Rooney – was passed in 2003 to reverse decades failed opportunities for minorities and mandates that NFL teams in search of head coaches interview at least one minority candidate for the position. The rule has operated for six years with, on the surface, good results, and last summer was expanded to include front-office executive positions. However, in taking a closer look, there are areas for improvement.

There are now seven African-American head coaches in the league. Four of them – Raheem Morris, Mike Singletary, Jim Caldwell and Perry Fewell – were internal candidates already with their respective teams. The Rooney Rule does not require teams to interview minority candidates if they promote a minority from within their organizations. That aspect of the rule seems a bit odd: Isn’t the intent of the rule to uncover more qualified individuals, not just those already known to the teams from having worked there?

As for front offices, there are five African-American general managers in the NFL – Ozzie Newsome (Ravens), Rod Graves (Cardinals), Rick Smith (Texans), Jerry Reese (Giants) and Martin Mayhew (Lions). All were named to their roles prior to the expansion of the Rooney Rule last June to include front office executives.

One problem appears to be the focus at the top. As with anything, problems need to be dealt with in a systematic manner, not just with a focus on one or two positions at the top. The lack of minority leadership at the highest levels of organizations is a symptom of a larger lack of minorities in positions below them. To have qualified candidates for Rooney Rule positions, there needs to be more directed action in “feeder” positions – coordinator positions on the coaching side and director positions on the personnel side. Addressing this infrastructure will not only give the Rooney Rule more teeth but more breadth.

The other problem with the Rooney Rule is the issue of “sham” interviews. It appears to be increasingly often that ownership knows exactly whom they want for top positions in their organization and are not going to be deterred in hiring them. The requirement to comply with the Rooney Rule then becomes a necessary hurdle to overcome. It was clear in the past week that the Browns and Redskins wanted Mike Holmgren and Bruce Allen, respectively, to run their organizations. Any other interviews with minority candidates were done out of compliance rather than true interest.

Understanding the noble intention of the rule, we should have transparency in the process to avoid this charade. When the Colts were looking for a head coach in 2002 and Tony Dungy became available, they pounced. If Dungy had not been a minority, they too would have had to go through the pretense of another interview. Sometimes it’s about knowing whom a team wants, and the rest has become simply fulfillment of a requirement rather than true interest. Perhaps an answer to this problem is to allow teams to dispense with sham interviews as long as they genuinely comply with the rule in other significant positions.

The hiring of Holmgren and Allen – and perhaps more to come with Mike Shanahan and others – illustrate the potential pitfalls of the Rooney Rule. With some tweaking, however, it can be empowered to its full effect.

Follow me on Twitter: adbrandt

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