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NFL effectively shows it will no longer enforce Rooney Rule

Roger Goodell sends a message — and it couldn’t have been worse

Mark down this date: Jan. 19, 2018. History will show that on that day, the NFL effectively eliminated the Rooney Rule.

Sure, the league still officially mandates that teams must interview at least one minority candidate for head coach and general manger jobs and equivalent front-office positions. And recently, the league even expanded the rule to include women: For all executive openings in the commissioner’s office, a woman must be interviewed. But with its disgraceful ruling Jan. 19 about the process that resulted in the Oakland Raiders’ rehiring of Jon Gruden, the commissioner’s office tacitly informed teams it will no longer enforce the rule, permitting owners, if they choose, to ignore it altogether. Just as the Raiders did.

The facts, as well as the franchise’s disregard for the spirit of the rule, are as incontrovertible as they are damning for both the Raiders and the commissioner’s office, which is complicit in owner Mark Davis’ misconduct. The timeline of the Gruden-Raiders reunion provides all the evidence needed for an open-and-shut case.

After meeting with Gruden on Christmas Eve, Davis became convinced that the Super Bowl winner, who was formerly an ESPN analyst, would return to the team he led from 1998 through 2001. On Dec. 31, Davis fired head coach Jack Del Rio. Sometime before the Raiders’ Jan. 6 news conference to reintroduce Gruden, general manager Reggie McKenzie interviewed Oakland tight ends coach Bobby Johnson and USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin, who are both black, for a gig neither of them had a snowball’s chance of getting. How do we know this? Because Davis told us.

He laid it all out to reporters at the aforementioned news conference. Davis revealed he was “pretty confident that [Gruden] was all-in” after their initial meeting. “… That’s the term that we were using in our discussions and everything, are you all-in?” Davis said. “And I never wavered from all-in. And this time, he didn’t waver either.”

So there you have it: After securing Gruden’s commitment, Davis initiated contract discussions with Gruden. At some point during the process, McKenzie conducted two sham interviews for the purpose of complying with the rule. Problem was, Davis openly blabbed to the media that he A) persuaded Gruden to come aboard before he fired Del Rio; B) quickly moved forward with Gruden to reach an agreement in principle; and C) had no interest in considering anyone else for the job.

In the run-up to the rule being implemented in 2003, the commissioner’s office made it crystal clear to owners that, to comply with the spirit of the rule, they should enter into hiring searches with an open mind. Basically, don’t pick a coach, initiate contract discussions with him and then at some point during a rigged process go through the motions with a minority coach or two.

The Raiders provided the textbook example of how to violate the spirit of the rule.

Confronted with the admission straight from Davis’ mouth, the NFL shockingly ruled that the Raiders complied with the rule. The league’s decision brings to mind the scene in Casablanca in which Capt. Louis Renault exclaims, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” A croupier then hands Renault a stack of money and says, “Your winnings, sir.”

It strains credulity that even after Davis walked us through how the Raiders violated the rule, the league office truly believes there’s nothing to see here. Members of the Fritz Pollard Alliance haven’t looked away.

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In a rare split with the NFL, the alliance, which helps oversee compliance of the rule, admonished the Raiders and the league office on Jan. 19 after initially acting too quickly in saying the team had complied.

“We believe the facts overwhelmingly point in the other direction,” a statement by the alliance read. “In his enthusiasm to hire Jon Gruden, Raiders’ owner Mark Davis failed to fulfill his obligation under the Rule and should step forward and acknowledge he violated the Rule.

“The NFL broke ground when it created the Rooney Rule, but it made the wrong call in refusing to penalize Mark Davis in this instance. Davis crossed the line, and we are disappointed in the League’s decision. The Rooney Rule and all of the League’s equal opportunity efforts need to be strengthened. We have called for meetings with the League to ensure that a process like this never happens again.”

Ultimately, the decision to let the Raiders off the hook falls at the feet of commissioner Roger Goodell. In 2003, Goodell’s predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, displayed the type of admirable leadership absent in the league’s embarrassing handling of Oakland’s obvious flouting of the rule. Tagliabue fined former Detroit Lions general manager Matt Millen $200,000 for “failing to discharge his duties” under the requirement.

With his toothless response to the Raiders, Goodell has given every other team license to ignore the rule. Since the inception of the rule, the league office has punted in other situations where questions arose about the credibility of the process. With the Raiders, though, this marked the first time that an owner publicly acknowledged violating the rule and faced no discipline from Goodell.

On social media, Raiders supporters have argued that based on the franchise’s groundbreaking record in hiring, they should essentially get a pass on the whole Gruden thing. Under the guidance of then-owner Al Davis, Mark Davis’ father, the Raiders had the league’s first Latino head coach to win a Super Bowl (Tom Flores) and the first African-American head coach in the league’s modern era (Art Shell). Former Raiders executive Amy Trask was among the highest-ranking women in professional sports. Mark Davis added to the franchise’s honorable legacy by hiring general manager McKenzie, who is black. No doubt about it: On the matter of inclusion, the Raiders have been way ahead of the competition.

Of course, none of that has anything to do with the fact that Mark Davis disregarded the rule in his pursuit of Gruden.

If a driver who has had a pristine record for 40 years is one day clocked at 70 mph in a 25 mph zone and subsequently admits to speeding, he should be ticketed. It’s as plain as the NFL’s failure to do the right thing by giving the Raiders a thumbs-up sign.

Provided with an opportunity to send a strong signal to minorities in the NFL about his feelings on the rule, Goodell did just that. And his message couldn’t have been worse.