How to improve the Rooney Rule
Owners aren’t incentivized enough to comply with the rule. Here are some suggested revisions.
The fight for diversity and inclusion, in many ways, is no different from the game of football. For every yard gained in a drive, there’s a loss of yardage in the same drive that stifles progress to the end zone. Sometimes lateral moves are made to eventually move forward. A difference between these perpetual games of inches is that advocating for diversity requires more soft skill than raw force and, unfortunately, the pace is much slower.
In its 20 years of existence, the Rooney Rule produced significant gains and losses in its goal to create equal opportunities on the 32 sidelines and front offices of the NFL. Currently, a quarter of the league has an African American general manager/president of football operations. Conversely, the hiring rate of Black coaches increased to only 18% (25 of 137 hires) since the adoption of the rule in 2003. There are only six minority head coaches in the league currently, and a lawsuit that alleges that the league still has a “race problem.”
As earnest as the Rooney Rule is, it doesn’t negate the fact that it there is a need for improvement. There have been revisions, but the rule is still struggling to resonate. Among reasons the rule fails to resonate: there’s not much of an incentive to comply. Here are some adjustments that should be considered to improve the Rooney Rule.
Revise Resolution JC-2A
In November 2020, the NFL passed Resolution JC-2A, which rewards teams for developing minority candidates for head coaching and front office positions. In the resolution, a team losing an assistant coach who’s hired as a head coach or a team losing an executive to become a general manager for another team is compensated with third-round picks. If a team loses minority personnel to become a general manager for another team and an assistant coach becomes a head coach in the same year, that team is compensated with three third-round picks if the hires last two years with their new teams. The hiring team receives no compensation under JC-2A.
The premise of this resolution is ambitious, but it mostly comes up short. While picks are valuable to teams, it’s not enough. It’s also difficult to receive since the hired coach and general manager have to remain in those positions for at least two years, mainly because Black head coaches tend to have shorter tenures than white head coaches, and are more likely to be on the hot seat than white coaches.
Instead of offering third-round picks for compensation, the revised JC-2A should offer first- and second-round picks plus cash considerations. For example, if a team loses a minority personnel member to become a general manager elsewhere or if an assistant coach moves on to become a head coach elsewhere, the compensation should be mid- to high-second round picks and cash considerations up to $200,000.
Under a revised JC-2A, the hiring team would be compensated. The hiring team could get a low- to mid-first-round pick and cash considerations up to $250,000.
Real rewards and real consequences
NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith once described the Rooney Rule as a suggestion rather than a requirement.
“How important is a rule where it has no consequences?” Smith said. “How good is a rule if no one is held accountable to it?”
Smith is right. There’s not much accountability held in the Rooney Rule, and not much of an incentive to comply. Owners are doing only the bare minimum to comply and are continuing to widen the gap of head coaching disparities.
The Rooney Rule isn’t doing enough to appeal to the “greed” of the owners. Again, compensatory draft picks are cool, but there should be more incentives for them to not only comply with the rule but to make it a point to hire. Let’s say if a team goes through the process and hires a qualified minority coach and retain them for three years, the hiring team receives $200,000.
Consequently, any team that fails to interview the minority candidates per the rule is fined $200,000, as the Detroit Lions were in 2003 after the rule’s inception. Since then, no other team has been fined for violation of the rule but fines should be emphasized for accountability and even in matters of integrity, which highlights the next suggestion.
One of the biggest takeaways from Brian Flores’ class action lawsuit against the NFL is the allegation of teams conducting ‘sham’ interviews only for the sake of complying with the rule. The lawsuit accused management and front offices of not conducting interviews in good faith and creating a stigma that interviews of Black candidates are only being done as a formality.
To combat the tendency for teams to check the boxes, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for a revision that features the creation of a committee that monitors interviews to ensure that they are not being conducted as a formality. The interviews would be taped and sent to the committee for observation. Then, the committee would grade the interview on the metrics of questions asked in terms of variance and quality. The interviewer can only pass with a score of 80% or above. If an interviewing team fails, it would lose a combination of its first- and second-round picks and $250,000.
Granted, this suggestion is a bit extreme. However, interviews and how they are being conducted are a vital part of the Rooney Rule. It isn’t enough to interview two or more minority candidates. These interviews have to also be meaningful if the goal is to increase diversity among head coaches and in the front office.
According to the NFL, Rooney Rule compliance isn’t required for interim hires. The rule doesn’t apply to an interim head coach during the season, but it applies after the conclusion of the team’s season. What if the interim coach is a member of a minority group? Should an exception be made in this circumstance? The Carolina Panthers’ early season situation provokes the thought.
In Week 5, the Carolina Panthers fired Matt Rhule and promoted Steve Wilks from defensive coordinator to interim head coach. In his 12 games at the helm, Wilks brought Carolina from the league cellar to the verge of the NFC South title and a wild-card berth.
Given the situation that the Panthers had this season, it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to make an adjustment for interim head coaches in the rule. In the adjustment, if the interim coach is a member of a minority group, the team could remove the interim tag during the season and wouldn’t be required to follow the rule if the team is intent on hiring the coach full time.
If a minority coach could fill in and coach a team to wins and the franchise wants to retain him, it’s better to make it official during the season and bypass formalities and wasting the time of viable candidates.
The Rooney Rule’s playbook consists of too much lateral movement that’s stalling the drive for diversity. If it’s progress that the NFL is after with this rule, the time for adjustments is now.