NFL owners need a jolt to make fairer decisions in hiring Black coaches and executives
There’s lots of lip service about change, but there is little evidence of real progress
INGLEWOOD, Calif. – On Sunday, in glitzy SoFi Stadium, the NFL completed its 102nd season, a season that saw record television ratings and record profits. The league tightened its grip on our collective psyche with great competition, violence, compelling games and emerging stars.
But the season also ends with ongoing unresolved conflicts about the league’s continued resistance to hiring and retaining African Americans as head coaches and executives.
Although we are reminded at every turn that 70% of the NFL’s players are African American – with the emergence of white stars such as wide receiver Cooper Kupp of the Los Angeles Rams, the offensive player of the year; T.J. Watt, the defensive player of the year; and Cincinnati’s young Joe Burrow, the comeback player of the year – will there be a sense among owners that white players are “taking back” the league? Will this embolden owners to become even more resistant to creating pathways for African Americans aspiring to become head coaches and executives?
On virtually every front, the NFL continues to win. Even Sunday’s halftime show was an testament to the NFL’s victory on the cultural front. In 2016, rapper Jay-Z refused an invitation to participate in the NFL’s halftime entertainment show. He did this in support of former quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose protest against the NFL effectively ended his playing career.
Three years later, with Kaepernick still unemployed, Jay-Z’s company, Roc Nation, signed a lucrative deal with the NFL to produce entertainment for events including Super Bowl halftime. The success of the agreement was on display Sunday with a hip-hop-centric lineup of entertainers, including Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Mary J. Blige, 50 Cent and Kendrick Lamar.
The NFL won with Kaepernick, who reached an out-of-court settlement with the league rather than going to court and forcing the league to disclose potentially damaging correspondence. The league entered into a financial arrangement with the Players Coalition. The arrangement effectively ended on-field protests that had come close to bringing owners to their knees.
But the NFL’s most impressive victory has been its triumph over the Rooney Rule, the measure established in 2003 that requires NFL teams to interview ethnic and racial minorities for head coaching and senior football operations positions.
What became crystal clear to me this season is that the Rooney Rule is a failure and should be blown up. The owners have won. They have perfected a work-around that allows them to use the rule for their benefit. If the Rooney Rule didn’t exist, the 32 owners would have to invent something just like it. The rule gives them perfect cover to continue business as usual: They interview Black candidates to check a box, then with the box checked, they can hire whomever they want.
In his lawsuit against the NFL, former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores exposed the sham when he revealed an exchange with New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. Belichick congratulated Flores for getting the New York Giants head coaching job. The problem is, Flores hadn’t yet interviewed for the job. Belichick was referring to Brian Daboll, who had already been offered the job. Flores interviewing was simply window dressing to satisfy Rooney Rule etiquette.
This is the level of impunity with which the white men and women who run the league operate. This is what Flores, Kaepernick and anyone who has ever challenged the league is up against.
“I think the Rooney Rule was an integrity check to create a system or rule to see if these owners want to be men of their word and step up to the plate when it comes to honestly assessing coaches fairly,” said former NFL player James Hasty. Hasty’s search firm, Eneje, uses analytics to determine coaching candidates based on several factors, including how many years they’ve coached, how many positions, won-loss records of the teams for which they worked. Hasty, who played 14 NFL seasons, said the tool could enhance the Rooney Rule, not replace it.
“I don’t think the Rooney Rule should be scrapped,” he said. “I just feel that the rules were misused. The rule was telling the owners: ‘If you guys have any measure of integrity, you’ll do the right thing, and if you don’t, let’s have some guideline put in place.’ ”
Morality is not part of the NFL’s business model.
Like most leagues, the NFL supports a number of worthy initiatives. The league supports social justice organizations and has an impressive initiative to bring attention to historically Black colleges and universities. The problem is that these various brand halos have nothing to do with the league’s core business of hiring head coaches and executives. They give the league cover.
Earlier this week, I sat under a scalding Los Angeles sun as commissioner Roger Goodell offered his view of the league’s dilemma over race and empowerment. As Goodell spoke, a panel of Black scholars sat inside the complex about 50 yards away, discussing and debating whether the NFL’s social justice initiatives were little more than hush money designed to mute real dissent. The juxtaposition of Goodell and the Black scholars encapsulates the dilemma of taking on an organization that has the resources to speak out of both sides of its mouth.
Rod Graves, the executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, doesn’t think the Rooney Rule should be scrapped, but he feels it needs to be weaponized. “The current system is not built to support a sustainable growth pattern for diversity of leadership,” Graves told me Sunday. “We have to take a new look at how we identify talent, how we evaluate talent and how we support that talent. Does that mean scrapping the system? It definitely means an overhaul.”
Blowing up the Rooney Rule eliminates a convenient escape hatch and forces all stakeholders to return to the drawing board. The Rooney Rule will provide a moral framework to create a new rule, one that has teeth.
“Anytime you have you have a system where’s there’s a lack of true commitment or no real way of binding owners to a pattern of growth or fairness, that system is not working,” Graves said.
Graves does not want to scrap the Rooney Rule. “To do away with the Rooney Rule, to me, is tantamount to somebody coming in and saying let’s do away with voting rights bill and start over,” he said.
But there needs to be another tactic to get through to owners. Groups like the Fritz Pollard Alliance have effectively presented the moral argument for diversity. They have not done well to present owners with a compelling case for why diversity is good for business.
In 1956, when the league was predominantly white, and teams were enforcing racial quotas, owners likely would have been hard-pressed to believe that Black players were crucial to the league’s success. Now that 70% of the league’s players are Black, few owners would argue that diversity on the field has not been great for business.
The challenge for Graves’ organization in 2022 is convincing NFL teams that diversity at all levels of the organization is just as important for growth and profitability. “We have to apply that same logic when it comes to diverse leadership,” Graves said. “There’s a business argument that needs to be made. We’ve got to begin taking into consideration the benefits of having Blacks and people of color in those leadership roles and what it would mean to business.”
Lacking that, there must be a hammer to be dropped — or threatened to be dropped — on NFL owners that will move them to make fairer decisions in the hiring process. The Flores lawsuit got the owners’ attention. Getting the U.S. government to threaten to take away the NFL’s antitrust exemption would get the owners’ attention; NFL players threatening to take some collective action would get their attention.
Without commenting on any particular path of action, Graves said, “Everything needs to be on the table.”
“What we’ve seen over time is that the system requires a jolt in order to make some sort of substantial change,” he said. “That jolt usually comes from outside of our system, then we tend to get more focused on resolving the issue.”
The question at the end of the season is the same question I had at the beginning: What type of jolt will shake up a league that keeps on winning?