Somewhere between panic and neglect, the NFL found its footing on minority coaching hires Tuesday.
This is likely to anger a great number of people, which is the first indication that team owners got it right. They didn’t overreact and they didn’t pretend the problem doesn’t exist. They left that for Twitter.
Instead, league owners finally acknowledged what had become difficult to ignore: After a decade of progress on the minority hiring front, the NFL had gone backward.
Was it an intentional regression? Probably not in a mustache-twisting, evil-cartoon character sense. You might even be able to pinpoint some of the circumstances that explain why the 2010s were less fruitful than the 2000s. But those explanations don’t make it any less stifling for non-white coaches.
The bigger issue is the bottom line:
In the first nine years after the league adopted the Rooney Rule requiring teams to interview a diverse list of candidates, minority coaches were hired for 23.7 percent of vacant head coaching positions. In the next nine years, when progress should have continued climbing, the percentage dropped to 14.7.
All of this in a league where nearly 70 percent of the players are non-white.
“Where we are currently today is not acceptable. We need to be better than we are," Falcons president and former Buccaneers general manager Rich McKay told radio station 92.9 in Atlanta on Tuesday.
“The Rooney Rule when it was first brought in play … it really did have the right intended impact. And (now) it definitely, no question, has not had the impact as of late. So it needed to be modified."
And that’s what team owners did Tuesday. They decreed that teams now must interview at least two minority candidates, outside their organization, for a head coaching position. They also need to interview at least one minority candidate for coordinator and executive positions. And each team needs to establish a minority coaching fellowship program.
Just as noteworthy, the owners declined to vote on a proposal that had been floated a week earlier that would have given teams better draft positions in the third round if they hired minorities.
The idea was well-meaning but terribly flawed. It would have introduced unintended consequences, and was politely dismissed by Tony Dungy and Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, among others.
Ultimately, the draft compensation would have flown in the face of the intent of the Rooney Rule. The original rule was never meant to give minorities an unfair advantage. It was never meant to establish quotas.
The original Rooney Rule was simply about opportunity. It was supposed to put minority candidates in a room that too often had been locked shut.
And, for a while, that’s how it worked. Owners took notice after the Lions were fined $200,000 for failing to abide by the Rooney Rule in 2003, and the diversity of candidates grew.
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Mike Tomlin, a former Bucs assistant under both Dungy and Jon Gruden, was considered the perfect example. He was not a leading candidate for the job when he was interviewed by the Steelers at age 34 in 2007, but he was so impressive during the process that he got the job.
And since that moment, Bill Belichick is the only coach in the NFL with more victories.
So what has gone wrong since then? Part of the problem is that the NFL has become offense-obsessed and African-American coaches have traditionally been steered toward the defensive side of the ball, which is its own form of racism.
So white coaches such as Adam Gase, Kliff Kingsbury, Matt LaFleur, Ben McAdoo, Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan and Zac Taylor have gotten jobs as head coaches in their 30s. And you could make a case that every one of them deserved their position. Some have even turned out to be wildly successful.
But interviews with minority coaches were suddenly looking more like window dressing, and less about actual opportunity. There are cases where it appears owners intentionally interviewed inexperienced African-American coaches just to avoid the appearance of a serious candidacy.
And that’s what makes Tuesday’s events so important. It’s not just increasing the number of candidates, but also reminding owners that the world is watching.
“Me and some others folks have been beating our heads against the rocks trying to get the NFL to contemplate some of these Rooney Rule expansions for years, so I am hopeful," said American University law professor Jeremi Duru, who wrote the book Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL.
“But in the end, it’s going to come down to enforcement and whether the league is going to truly scrutinize the way in which clubs conduct their interviews under the rule."
The Rooney Rule was never about preferential treatment. It was not meant to give minorities a head start. It just assured them a place in a competition that had too often excluded them.
On Tuesday, the NFL deftly reminded themselves of that.
There have been 120 head coaching changes in the NFL since the Rooney Rule was adopted in December 2002, and minorities have been hired 19.2 percent of the time. But that figure is misleading. Instead of leading to increasing opportunities, the percentages have been dropping. In the first nine years of the Rooney Rule, minorities got 23.7 percent of the head coaching openings. In the next nine years, that percentage fell to 14.7.
(Openings each year, with minority hirings in parentheses)
2003: 5 (1)
2004: 7 (2)
2005: 3 (1)
2006: 10 (2)
2007: 7 (1)
2008: 6 (1)
2009: 9 (2)
2010: 5 (1)
2011: 7 (3)
Total: 59 (14)
2012: 6 (0)
2013: 8 (0)
2014: 7 (2)
2015: 8 (1)
2016: 7 (1)
2017: 5 (2)
2018: 7 (1)
2019: 8 (1)
2020: 5 (1)
Total: 61 (9)