It’s time for the NFL to take the Rooney Rule seriously or get rid of it
The Raiders have made a mockery of the rule, so Roger Goodell must take a tougher stance
UPDATE — The Fritz Pollard Alliance has asked the NFL to investigate if the Oakland Raiders violated the Rooney Rule in hiring Jon Gruden.
No matter the tripe eventually offered by the Oakland Raiders to explain that they actually complied with the Rooney Rule during their quest to reunite with former head coach Jon Gruden, know this: Yet another NFL owner has given the process the middle finger, and it’s time for the league to either significantly strengthen the Rooney Rule or scrap it altogether.
After my colleagues Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen reported that Raiders owner Mark Davis was all-in on bringing back Gruden, currently an ESPN analyst, to the team he led from 1998 through 2001, the buzz around the league has been that a deal is imminent. Problem is, the Rooney Rule mandates that NFL teams interview at least one candidate of color for job openings. With Davis apparently so far down the road on making a splashy rehire, it’s laughable to suggest that the Raiders will actually comply with the spirit of the rule by interviewing a coach of color who has a 0 percent chance of getting the job.
Like almost all teams, however, the Raiders will meet the letter of the rule — because it’s absurdly easy to do.
The Raiders could have an informal chat with a minority member of their current coaching staff. They could interview someone who’s currently out of the league. Considering that they’re under the microscope, the Raiders may even bring in a rising minority coach on another team, just for the sake of appearances. Of course, all of that would be just for show. Still, under those scenarios, the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which helps oversee compliance of the rule, probably would determine that the Raiders met the minimum standards.
And the Raiders would be the latest franchise to perpetrate this sham.
Back in 2010, there were major questions raised about whether the Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks skirted the rule before hiring Mike Shanahan and Pete Carroll, respectively, as their head coaches. Before the Redskins officially hired Shanahan, owner Daniel Snyder supposedly interviewed the team’s secondary coach, Jerry Gray, who is African-American. The Seahawks were far down the road with Carroll before they interviewed African-American Leslie Frazier, at the time the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive coordinator. Carroll was hired shortly after Frazier, now Buffalo’s defensive coordinator, interviewed.
With Shanahan and Carroll both being high-profile candidates who seemed to have the jobs locked up, it appeared that Gray and Frazier were only being used to help the teams adhere to the rule. Nevertheless, the Fritz Pollard Alliance checked off on everything.
Fact is, although there often are questions about whether teams are acting in good faith regarding the rule, in place since 2003 for head coaches and expanded in 2009 to include general manager jobs and equivalent front-office positions, only once has a team been fined for flouting the rule. During the first year of the process, then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Roger Goodell’s predecessor, fined former Detroit Lions general manager Matt Millen $200,000 for “failing to discharge his duties” under the requirement.
Back in 2010, it seemed there was enough anecdotal evidence for Goodell to probe how the Redskins and Seahawks came to their decisions. He decided there was nothing more to see.
Now, Goodell faces a situation in which the Raiders, following in the long tradition established by other clubs, have broken new ground in making a mockery of the rule. If Goodell believes the concept behind the rule is important for the continued viability of a league in which most of the players are black, then he shouldn’t punt this time. Moving forward, he must take a tougher stance.
Even if there’s only anecdotal evidence that a team has picked its next head coach in disregard of the rule, such as credible news reports about the Raiders laying out a red carpet for Gruden after jettisoning Jack Del Rio, Goodell should take strong disciplinary action. And we’re not talking about merely fining a general manager. Nah. Goodell should go after teams where it really hurts: Hit ’em with the loss of a high-round draft pick. Trust us, if owners fear they may lose a second-rounder for failing to follow an annoying rule, they’ll definitely be more inclined to deal with the annoyance.
Then there’s the actual interview process.
Sometimes during interviews, minority coaches and front-office officials say, they know quickly that they’re not truly in the running for positions. Obviously, team representatives don’t reveal that the minorities in front of them are only there for teams to comply with the rule. There’s just often a vibe in the room that reveals the situation. Afterward, candidates are reluctant to criticize teams for fear of hurting their chances to interview for other jobs.
One could argue that coaches of color should decline to interview for jobs that already appear to be filled, such as the one with Oakland. But minority coaches don’t have that luxury. At the beginning of the season, the NFL had eight head coaches of color (on Monday, the Detroit Lions fired Jim Caldwell), matching 2011 as the most it has had in any season. Of course, there are 32 teams. Minorities currently occupy fewer than a fourth of the league’s top coaching jobs.
By getting in front of as many decision-makers as possible, minority coaches and executives hope that doors will open for them in the future. Here’s one way to improve interviews: Goodell should insist teams provide him with complete transcripts to prove that substantive discussions occurred. That way, if owners and their underlings are only going through the motions, Goodell will have a written account to push back.
While there may be no mechanism to ensure a truly fair process, or no punishment too great to dissuade all teams from ignoring the rule, adding teeth couldn’t hurt. Or the NFL should end the farce and acknowledge that continuing to improve diversity in its ranks is no longer a priority for professional sports’ most successful league.
An honor code is supposed to exist between the commissioner’s office, the Fritz Pollard Alliance and NFL teams. Taking people at their word, though, has not always worked. The Raiders have proved that again.