How the NFL can fix the Rooney Rule

The Rooney Rule appears to have lost some steam in 2010, and we’re only 12 days into the new year. After some fancy footwork by the Washington Redskins in their hiring of Bruce Allen as general manager (less than two hours after dismissing their previous GM) and Mike Shanahan as their head coach (less than 48 hours after dismissing his predecessor), the NFL and the Fritz Pollard Alliance found the team in compliance with the rule.

Now the Seattle Seahawks appear to be in the crosshairs of the spirit of the rule, if not in technical compliance of it. In what appears to be a preemptive strike in securing Pete Carroll to be their next head coach, the Seahawks targeted Carroll before, during and after dismissing Jim Mora as head coach. While negotiations with Carroll progressed, the team conducted an interview or two with a minority candidate, including Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.

The Rooney Rule needs to be amended. It has become the butt of comments around the sports world, including tweets such as, “They should rename it the Rooney Suggestion” from RedskinsInsider. Or, “Apparently the Rooney Rule is not a rule as much as it is an exception” from EricStangel. And my own: “Did the Rooney Rule go to Ireland with its namesake?” The Rooney Rule has lost its way.

Listen, I don’t blame the Redskins or Seahawks for what they’ve done. They clearly identified the people they wanted to lead their franchises and were aggressive in securing them. They weren’t going to be deterred from their objective of bringing those men on board, even if it left hurt feelings and token compliance with the Rooney Rule in its wake.

Identifying and securing the person whom employers want to hire is common in any industry. However, complicating the issue in the NFL is the matter of the Rooney Rule, which requires that teams interview at least one minority candidate for the position. The response from the Redskins, Seahawks and others before them has been, “OK, we’ll do that because we have to or we face a fine or loss of a draft choice, but we know who we want.” Thus, the specter of “sham interviews,” with candidates sitting through meetings that have varied levels of legitimacy and/or deception to their candidacy.

When Tony Dungy – who is outspoken about the lack of teeth in the rule -- was fired by the Buccaneers eight years ago this week, the Indianapolis Colts pounced, hiring him a week later to be their head coach. The Colts clearly had identified whom they wanted and were aggressive in securing him to be their head coach. Now, the Redskins and Seahawks are doing the exact same thing. The issue for them, however, is satisfying their Rooney Rule obligation, a noble cause now treated as a necessary inconvenience.

So what do we do about this wink-and-nod treatment of the Rooney Rule? As I’ve suggested before, I think the rule focuses too much attention at the top of the organization and not enough on the guts of the team. The reason behind the rule – to bring minority candidates into top-level hires after years of neglect – addresses only a symptom rather than the cause. The problem that the Rooney Rule tries to address is more of a systemic issue of many years inherent in organizations at all levels.

I suggest that a blue-ribbon panel be appointed to study NFL organizations at all levels to determine if they’re in compliance with not just the Rooney Rule but with sufficient opportunities for, and hiring of, minority candidates at all levels. What do other positions in the organization look like for minorities? What about pro and college scouting directors? Marketing staff? Public Relations? Finance?

If organizations are providing realistic and substantive opportunities for minorities in these areas, there could be allowances made for positions at the top of the chain of command if they’re committed to whom they want to hire. It’s through the building of the infrastructure that organizations create their success, both on and off the field. With a solid base behind the front men, there can be significant gain and accomplishment.

Let’s fix the root of the problem here, not a symptom. Then teams like the Redskins and Seahawks can operate with transparency rather than spin control after the fact.

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