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Rod Graves renewing efforts to improve inclusive hiring in NFL

The new executive director of The Fritz Pollard Alliance inherits tall task

In his first public comments as executive director of The Fritz Pollard Alliance, Rod Graves articulated his vision for the organization that partners with the NFL to enforce compliance with the Rooney Rule.

Speaking with reporters on Tuesday during a lengthy conference call a week before training camp opens, Graves, formerly both an NFL general manager and a high-ranking league official, answered questions on topics pertaining to matters of diversity in the game. Graves, hired in April to replace the retiring John Wooten as the group’s primary decision-maker, plans to be proactive in an effort to improve inclusive hiring.

“The National Football League has brought tremendous excitement to fans through the game of football. Beyond the players, there exists an enormous business filled with opportunities,” Graves said. “Unfortunately, too many … have not had the chance to participate at the highest levels of leadership.

“Our vision is to see diversity of leadership in the business plan of every NFL team. We recognize, as all should, that equal opportunity is a right and diversity is a strength. … Our goal is to work strategically, and tirelessly, with those who believe as we do: that opportunities should be accessible to all who are prepared.”

By any criteria, Graves inherits a bleak situation.

At the end of last season, there were eight head-coaching vacancies. Seven of those positions went to white coaches. When the 2019 season kicks off, the NFL will have only four head coaches of color: Brian Flores of the Miami Dolphins, Ron Rivera of the Carolina Panthers, Anthony Lynn of the Los Angeles Chargers and Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers. When the 2018 season began, the league had eight coaches of color, matching 2011 and 2017 as the most it has had in any season.

The view from the executive offices is even worse.

The NFL, which is celebrating its 100th season, has never had an African American team president. Kevin Warren, formerly the league’s highest-ranking African American in business operations while serving as chief operating officer of the Minnesota Vikings, has left the NFL to become the next Big Ten commissioner. At the conclusion of the 2016 season, the NFL had seven black general managers. Now, Chris Grier of the Miami Dolphins is the only African American in that role. The NFL has 32 teams.

The numbers don’t lie, Graves said.

“The message is that we have fallen back in terms of our efforts,” said Graves, formerly the NFL’s senior vice president of football administration and club services.

Commissioner Roger Goodell has acknowledged that the coaching numbers, in a league with an on-field workforce that’s nearly 70 percent African American, must improve. Graves now takes on the responsibility of helping Goodell, Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, and others push policies that will help effect positive change from the front office to the field.

Of course, neither Graves nor Goodell or anyone else in the league office is in charge of actually filling team vacancies. One group has that responsibility: owners. That’s the crux of the problem, Graves said.

“Those [who] have concerns about the ownership side of the equation are right,” Graves said. “Owners have to take the question of diversity seriously. They have to embrace it. The consensus has to be that owners will make this [improved inclusive hiring] part of their business plan, and that they will because it’s good for the game, it’s good for business [and] it’s good for our fans.”

The Rooney Rule, in place since 2003 for head coaches and expanded in 2009 to include general manager jobs and equivalent front-office positions, states that an NFL team must interview at least one candidate of color for those jobs. And while there’s no doubt that the rule — named after Dan Rooney, the late Pittsburgh Steelers chairman and onetime head of the league’s diversity committee — has had a positive overall impact on the NFL’s culture, it recently became clear that the rule needed to be modified.

In December, the league required that teams interview a minority candidate from outside their organizations or candidates from a league-approved list. The potential for sham interviews has always been the rule’s underlying flaw. Teams could comply with the letter of the rule by merely interviewing a coach of color regardless of whether the candidate had the credentials to be considered, in earnest, for a head-coaching position. With more uniformity to the process now because of the rule change, the hope is that teams will interview in-house candidates who have the credentials to warrant serious consideration.

“I do advocate that it is a highly successful rule in the sense it has allowed minorities to get to the table,” Graves said. “One of the biggest concerns we had [historically] was not even having the opportunity to interview.

“Now we have that opportunity, but the biggest concern is in the spirit of the rule. We have concern that teams are checking the box and not really following through on the essence of giving a real opportunity to those who are prepared.”

Graves believes a collaborative approach with the NFL is the most prudent course to spur progress. However, he also signaled he’s willing to take an adversarial stance if necessary.

“We’re certainly going to have to work with the NFL [to] recognize what the real issues are, to have a presence with ownership and to talk about these specific areas and why we have concerns about them,” he said. “We would rather work quietly with owners. But if we have to work in the public domain, we will.”

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.