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The Rooney Rule: an analysis

Noble intention, need to go deeper Andrew Brandt

Print This January 05, 2011, 01:01 PM EST

The Rooney Rule – spearheaded by Steelers owner and present Ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney – was passed in 2003 to reverse decades of lack of opportunities for minorities as head coaches in the NFL. It mandates that NFL teams in search of head coaches interview at least one minority candidate for the position.

The rule has operated for seven years with mixed results. It was expanded to include front-office executive positions as of June 15, 2009. Despite noble intentions, there are areas for improvement.

Promotions outside of Rule

There are now six African-American head coaches in the league (there were seven before Mike Singletary was fired last week). Three of them – Raheem Morris, Leslie Frazier, and Jim Caldwell (and Singletary) – 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 in June 2009 to include front office executives.

Look deeper

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 on the top of the team’s organizational chart. The lack of minority leadership at the highest levels of organizations is a symptom of the root cause of the problem: a 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.

Charade interviews?

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 Rule, at times, seems like it more of a necessary hurdle to overcome rather than an affirmative step towards a noble goal.

Transparency needed

It seems clear now that the Dallas Cowboys would like to have Jason Garrett ascend from the team’s “interim” head coach to the team’s head coach, much in the way that was just done with the Vikings’ Leslie Frazier. Yet the Cowboys will, unlike the Vikings, conduct further interviews with, among others, assistant coach Ray Sherman, on Garrett’s staff in Dallas.

I know Ray well and think he would do a good job but have a hard time believing his interview is legitimate. And every year it appears that some interviews with minority candidates are 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, the Colts would have had to go through the charade of other interviews prior to hiring their chosen man.

Sometimes it’s about knowing whom a team wants, and the rest has become simply fulfillment of a requirement rather than true interest.

Some positives to develop

I do understand that the result of interviews alone, no matter how genuine, is progress and may allow candidates such as Frazier become known to ownership towards a future opportunity that is more sincere. However, I’m not sure that was the intent of the rule to begin with.

Perhaps an answer to this problem is to allow teams to dispense with the requirement of a minority interview for head coach or head of personnel as long as the team can show deeper compliance with the Rule in other significant positions throughout the organization of the team, such as top lieutenants in the scouting and coaching areas.

The inevitable hiring of Garrett – and perhaps more to come with Jim Harbaugh and others – illustrates the potential pitfalls of the Rooney Rule. With some tweaking, however, it can be empowered to its full effect.

Follow me on Twitter at adbrandt.

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