Rooney Rule at 20: A look back at the policy that changed the NFL’s hiring of Black coaches

In 2002, a report analyzing the records of Black head coaches (and a potential lawsuit) forced the league to act. Two decades later, the rule still has its critics.

On a January morning in 2002, civil rights attorney Cyrus Mehri was in the middle of his daily routine of reading the newspaper.

As he read through the sports section, which he always turned to first, he was shocked to read that Tony Dungy, the respected and admired head coach who took the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from league afterthought to consistent winner in just six seasons, had been fired following his team’s 31-9 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the playoffs.

Dungy, hired in 1996 after working 16 years as an assistant, had taken a franchise that had just three winning seasons in its first 20 years of existence and turned in four winning seasons in his six years at the helm. His firing came on the heels of another Black head coach, the Minnesota Vikings’ Dennis Green, being let go less than two weeks earlier after coming off just his first losing season in 10 seasons, which included being a missed field goal away from appearing in the Super Bowl following the 1998 season.

The firings temporarily dropped the number of Black head coaches in the NFL down to one, the New York Jets’ Herm Edwards.

“I got livid about what happened to Coach Dungy,” Mehri recently told Andscape.

So the longtime lawyer got to work.

The federal lawsuit filed by former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores earlier this year, which accuses the NFL and three teams (the Dolphins, Denver Broncos and New York Giants) of racial discrimination regarding Flores’ interview process with Denver and New York and his firing by Miami this past offseason, has once again put the league’s diversity hiring initiative, the Rooney Rule, in the spotlight.

The rule, implemented in December 2002, initially required that teams interview at least one minority candidate for their head coach openings. The rule was expanded to front-office positions in 2009, and in 2021 teams were required to interview at least two minority candidates.

While the Rooney Rule has drastically increased the number of Black and minority head coaches in the league since 2002, the policy still has its critics, who mostly argue that the policy doesn’t go far enough to encourage diverse hiring and can lead to sham interviews for Black candidates in order to satisfy the rule.

But arguments over the sanctity of the Rooney Rule don’t even take place without the publication of a research study — and a threatened lawsuit — 20 years ago by Mehri and one of the most famous lawyers in American history. That report finally made the NFL act on its diversity problem among the head coaching ranks, and birthed what would come to be known as the Rooney Rule.

Cyrus Mehri (left) in 2000. He teamed up with famed attorney Johnnie Cochran and University of Pennsylvania economics professor Janice Madden to create the report that led to the NFL’s Rooney Rule.

Steven Schaefer/AFP via Getty Images

“With my study, we argued: No, it’s more than a pipeline issue, because clearly there’s a higher bar. The only way you could have African American coaches performing so much better than white coaches is if you have a higher bar to becoming a coach.” — Janice Madden

As Mehri, who litigated multimillion-dollar workplace racial discrimination cases against Texaco in 1995 and Coca-Cola in 2000, stewed over the firings of Dungy and Green that morning in January 2002, he began to think about previous corporate racial discrimination cases he’d handled. He hypothesized that what was happening to Black people in corporate America, as it pertained to hiring and promotions, was also happening to Black men in the NFL: He believed that racial biases and double standards were affecting the hiring of Black head coaches.

Mehri theorized that if he looked at the win-loss records of Black head coaches, of which there had only been five in modern league history at the time, against white coaches, the Black coaches would fare very well, or perhaps perform better. 

So, Mehri enlisted famed attorney Johnnie Cochran and University of Pennsylvania economics professor Janice Madden. Mehri had worked with Madden on a racial discrimination case against Coca-Cola in the 1990s.

Mehri and Cochran asked Madden that if they gave her performance data on Black and white head coaches could she run a statistical analysis to compare the performance results (wins, losses, playoff appearances, etc.) between the two groups.

Madden, who now has 50 years of experience in studying workplace discrimination, including with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Labor in enforcing affirmative action policies, said she could. So the lawyers, with the help of a summer intern, collected 15 years’ worth of data and sent it to Madden, who conducted the research over the summer of 2002.

The ensuing report, which analyzed regular and postseason win/loss records of five Black coaches (Green, Dungy, Edwards, Art Shell, Ray Rhodes) and 94 white coaches from 1986 to 2001, was titled, Black Coaches In The National Football League: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities. (Rhodes, who coached the Eagles from 1995 to 1998 and the Green Bay Packers in 1999, was counted twice.)

The study found:

  • Black coaches averaged 1.1 more wins per season than white coaches (9.1 wins vs. 8).
  • Black coaches led teams to playoffs 67% of the time compared to 39% for white coaches.
  • Black coaches averaged 2.7 more wins in their first season than white coaches in their first season (9.5 wins vs. 6.8).
  • Black coaches averaged 1.3 more wins in their final season coaching a team than white coaches in their final season (6.8 wins vs. 5.5).
  • Black coaches inherited teams averaging 7.4 wins per season, and increased the average to 9.1 wins per season (that average dropped to 8.9 wins after a white coach took over).
  • 66% of teams led by a first-year Black coach made the playoffs compared to 20% of teams coached by a first-time white coach.

Madden thus concluded that “by virtually every objective criteria, Black head coaches in the NFL have outperformed their white counterparts,” and the results were “consistent with NFL teams ‘requiring’ that Black coaches be better than whites in order to obtain and to keep their positions.” 

While a lack of a “pipeline” could be blamed for the few Black head coaches in the league’s history at that point, the report argued a lack of diversity among decision-makers and in final candidate lists as explanations for the low numbers.

“Complexion of the decision-makers often creates barriers to equal opportunity,” the report read. “It is not always a case of overt or conscious racism; more often, it is about people being most comfortable with those who are most familiar to them.”

At the time of the study, all 32 NFL owners were white, only one Black man, Baltimore’s Ozzie Newsome, was a general manager, and it was nearly two decades before the first Black team president would be hired.

“With my study, we argued: No, it’s more than a pipeline issue, because clearly there’s a higher bar,” Madden told Andscape. “The only way you could have African American coaches performing so much better than white coaches is if you have a higher bar to becoming a coach.”

Aside from the statistical study, the report included biographies of a selection of Black coaches, coordinators and assistants who, in the authors’ opinion, were being overlooked for head coach positions, including offensive coordinator Sherman Lewis and defensive coordinators Emmett Thomas and Marvin Lewis.

Marvin Lewis coached the 2000 Baltimore Ravens defense that, to this day, still holds the record for the fewest points allowed in a 16-game season, yet was passed over for jobs until the Cincinnati Bengals hired him in January 2003.

“There is no way a white coach is the architect of one of the greatest defenses of all time that wins a Super Bowl and doesn’t immediately become a head coach,” Mehri said.

At the end of the report, the authors proposed a “Fair Competition Resolution” for the NFL to implement, which included three elements: 1.) reward one or more teams per year with a draft pick for implementing hiring practices that encourage diversity in decision-maker management positions; 2.) require teams to interview a “racially diverse” slate of candidates for head coach, assistant and coordinator jobs; or 3.) risk a first- or third-round draft pick for not complying with the hiring requirements.

That diverse slate concept came from a case Mehri handled in Ingram v. the Coca-Cola Co., in which Black executives at the soft drink maker claimed discrimination in promotions, compensation and performance evaluations. Mehri was negotiating an injunctive relief, a legal process that requires a party to abide by certain rules or parameters, in the Coca-Cola case and had come across an article from Clifford Alexander, the first Black secretary of the Army.

Early in Alexander’s tenure, he sent back a list of proposed general officers because of the lack of Black colonel candidates, instructing his staff to take into account any colonels whose records may have been negatively impacted by “racial predisposition[s]” of white superiors. When the new list came back, a colonel by the name of Colin Powell was included.

“That only happened because they expanded the slate,” Mehri said.

The lawyers would propose the same concept to the NFL.

On Sept. 30, 2002, Cochran and Mehri, alongside Madden, executive director of the Black Coaches Association Keith Floyd, and human rights activist Richard Lapchick, announced the report at a news conference at the Don Shula steakhouse in Baltimore ahead of a Monday Night Football game.

The pair laid out the findings of the report, suggested the “Fair Competition Resolution,” and even threatened a lawsuit in the event the league failed to respond or comply.

“We can litigate this. We can bring a lawsuit,” Cochran said at the news conference. “I think the NFL is reasonable. They understand that this can end up in the courts, and they’d rather not see that happen. But let’s see if we can have a dialogue.

“You only litigate after you’ve done everything you can to negotiate.”

After the news conference, Mehri met with the league leaders, including executive vice president of labor relations Harold Henderson, general counsel Jeff Pash and special adviser Tom Williamson. Then-commissioner Paul Taglibue was not present for any meetings.

“They had him cabined off in a Red Zone office somewhere,” Mehri said jokingly.

The NFL’s response was that of vitriol, and early meetings were chilly and full of tension, Mehri and Lapchick remember. When Mehri proposed the “Fair Competition Resolution,” and particularly the first recommendation of rewarding teams that emphasize diversity with a draft pick, the league vehemently opposed it.

But the meetings quickly became constructive. A month after the report’s release, the league created a 10-person committee on workplace diversity, including NFL owners Arthur Blank (Atlanta Falcons), Jeffrey Lurie (Eagles) and chairman Dan Rooney (Pittsburgh Steelers), and Black team executives Ozzie Newsome (Ravens) and Ray Anderson (Falcons).

After working together for eight consecutive weeks, with the league acquiescing to one component of the “Fair Competition Resolution,” Mehri and Cochran’s report began to finally take hold in the NFL. 

On Dec. 20, 2002, the league announced its “comprehensive program to promote diversity,” which among other things, included a commitment to “interview one or more minority applicants for the position” of head coach. Elements of the report’s diversity slate recommendation had been adopted.

Had the NFL not been accommodating, Mehri says, he and Cochran were prepared for litigation, even if they weren’t excited about pursuing it.

Their report showed a pattern of double standards being applied to Black head coaches and coaching candidates, including the quality of teams they inherit and their win-loss records once they get the job, which while staggering, isn’t enough to prove racial discrimination.

Mehri believes one of the league’s defenses would have been that coaching decisions are subjective based on the team’s current needs.

“ ‘Oh, we wanted an offensive guy, not a defensive guy. We wanted a younger guy, not an older guy.’ So it’s easy to come up with a business justification for any particular decision,” he said.

Mehri and Cochran, who died in 2005, would have needed — like Flores currently needs for his class-action lawsuit — a Black coach to step forward and jeopardize their career. (In April, former Arizona Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks and former NFL defensive coordinator Ray Horton joined Flores’ lawsuit.) They also would have had to find an actual discriminatory policy that led to the pattern of non-Black hirings, which may or may not have existed. It would’ve been a tough legal battle for both sides, Mehri said.

He credits the work of Pash, Rooney and the sports media for getting the policy implemented so quickly.

“If you had different leadership of the league, and they weren’t open-minded and responsive to new ideas, that could’ve gotten really ugly,” Mehri said.

“I’m much happier we didn’t have to go to litigation.”

The NFL’s comprehensive program to promote diversity was named the “Rooney Rule” after Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney (left, with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, right).

Diamond Images/Getty Images

After the policy was adopted, Washington Post reporter Len Shapiro asked Mehri what to call the new agreement: The Mehri-Cochran Rule? The Cochran-Mehri Rule?

“I said, ‘Forget about that. Let’s call it the Rooney Rule,’ ” Mehri remembers saying. “… It had a better ring to it.”

While teams have, to this day, been accused of running sham interviews with minority candidates to satisfy the Rooney Rule, the NFL tried to stamp that out from the beginning. 

Detroit Lions president Matt Millen was fined $200,000 for circumventing the rule to hire Steve Mariucci in 2003, which is the only known team to be fined in the 20 years of the policy. Mehri argues the Las Vegas Raiders should have been fined after the hiring of Jon Gruden in 2018 (the NFL said Raiders owner Mark Davis satisfied the Rooney Rule requirement).

“One thing that I know from my work in civil rights work, accountability matters,” Mehri said. “So if you don’t hold anyone accountable, no progress is made.”

The Rooney Rule and Lions’ fine appeared to have boosted the diversity effort. By 2005, there were a record six Black head coaches in the league. The next season, that number grew to seven, and was matched at the beginning of the 2011, 2017 and 2018 seasons.

In the 80 years predating the Rooney Rule, there were only five Black head coaches in modern NFL history, not including Fritz Pollard, who coached various NFL teams throughout the 1920s. In the nearly 20 years since the policy was enacted, 15 new Black coaches have been hired.

“It got people [in the NFL] thinking that there’s something wrong here, and we’ve got to do something to fix it,” said Lapchick, who has been documenting racial and gender hiring practices in the NFL and other sports leagues since 1988.

The league continued and expanded its diversity efforts over the next two decades.

Front-office positions were added to the Rooney Rule in 2009 (which the league and the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a minority hiring advocacy group born out of Mehri and Cochran’s report, had been pushing for since 2004, against owner objections). In 2020, the rule was expanded to offensive, defensive and special teams coordinator job openings, and, in a nod to the “Fair Competition Resolution,” the league began incentivizing teams with third-round draft picks for developing future minority head coaches.

A year later, teams were required to interview at least two external minority candidates for a vacant head coach, general manager or coordinator job. At the beginning of 2022, nearly two months after Flores filed his lawsuit, the league began mandating that all 32 teams hire a minority offensive assistant. (They also added interviewing women as an option to satisfy the Rooney Rule.)

Jonathan Beane, senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer for the NFL, has been responsible for implementing a strategic, leaguewide diversity, equity, and inclusion plan since being hired in September 2020. Aside from the Rooney Rule, Beane oversees diversity programming meant to make the hiring process of the league and its 32 teams more equitable, including executive-level education programs in conjunction with Stanford University and New York University, and professional development and networking summits for prospective front-office executives and quarterback coaches.

Due to expansions of the Rooney Rule and additional programs, there are currently a record seven Black general managers, and a record four Black team presidents, including the Las Vegas Raiders’ Sandra Douglass Morgan, the first Black female team president in NFL history, leading teams this coming season.

“This … shows the commitment of the owners to ensure that we move in the direction that’s needed to make sure this can continue to be the best league in the world.” Beane told Andscape. “We cannot be the best league in the world if we do not represent our fan base.”

That being said, at the end of the 2021 season, the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin was the only Black head coach. Tomlin is now joined by the Houston Texans’ Lovie Smith and the Buccaneers’ Todd Bowles, but of the 17 job openings over the last two seasons, only three have been filled by a Black man.

“You are seeing major, positive progress,” Mehri said. “But, the signature job is head coach.”

Regardless, Mehri is hopeful about the future of Black and minority head coaching opportunities, noting the good candidates in the pipeline: Texans’ offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator and former Minnesota Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier, Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy.

But as his report argued 20 years ago, it all comes down to who the majority white owners are comfortable with hiring, who have historically been other white men.

“You can do everything you can to tee this up for the owners,” Mehri said. “But they still have to make their decisions in a sound, business-oriented and fair way.”

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"