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Rooney Rule is working to bridge the NFL’s racial divide

The Fritz Pollard Alliance co-founder says it’s an uphill struggle but progress has been made

The Undefeated recently conducted an unprecedented poll of NFL fans’ perspectives on race, which shows remarkable support for the Rooney Rule, the requirement that NFL owners interview at least one minority candidate for each head coach or general manager vacancy. The poll reveals that nearly 70 percent of NFL fans somewhat or strongly support the Rooney Rule, while only about 10 percent strongly oppose the rule. While the poll showed a substantial racial divide on the issue of player protest, 66 percent of white NFL fans and 75 percent of black NFL fans support the rule.

NFL fans represent a remarkably broad cross section of America, making them an excellent proxy for the American public at large. The consensus in support of the rule is particularly impressive in this divisive moment in American history.

When Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. and I started on a mission in 2002 to persuade the NFL to adopt what became the Rooney Rule, we tried not only to persuade league executives but to appeal to the better selves of the American people that the rule is just, fair and right. While we received vitriolic backlash, and to a lesser extent still do, our faith in the goodness and fairness of the American people never wavered. Giving people a fair shot to advance themselves resonates broadly and powerfully and eclipses bigoted attitudes.

The Rooney Rule speaks to the best of American values, the idea that hard work creates opportunity and that opportunity should be open to all who cultivate it. The Rooney Rule has never been about telling a club owner whom to hire. It simply propels an inclusive hiring process, enhancing competition through granting top minority candidates an opportunity to make their case directly with the owners and other decision-makers. This increases the prospect of the best and most impactful candidates being hired for the good of the team and good of the game.

By any objective measure, the Rooney Rule has been a success. As the Harvard Business Review recently commented: “There is little doubt that the Rooney Rule brought change to the NFL: It changed the culture and increased awareness about the lack of ethnic diversity at the top of the league.”

In the 16 years before the rule’s enactment, only four minorities were hired to be head coaches. In a 500 percent increase, 22 minority coaches have been selected in the 16 years following the rule’s adoption. The Miami Dolphins selected New England Patriots defensive coordinator Brian Flores as head coach after an extraordinary postseason during which his playcalling shut down one explosive offense after another en route to the Super Bowl LIII title.

As a testament to the power of diversity, 10 Super Bowl teams since 2007 have been led by a minority head coach or general manager: head coaches Tony Dungy, Lovie Smith, Mike Tomlin (twice), Jim Caldwell and Ron Rivera, and general managers Jerry Reese (twice), Rod Graves, and Ozzie Newsome. Five times they became Super Bowl champions.

The success of the Rooney Rule compares favorably to corporate America at large, where only three of the CEOs in the Fortune 500 are African-American. Without an intervention like the Rooney Rule, these numbers will not materially change.

Notwithstanding its successes, the rule faces challenges. Last year, one owner crossed the line by not directly interviewing a minority candidate, and the Fritz Pollard Alliance started a dialogue with the league office to strengthen the rule. In December, the league announced enhanced tools for enforcement and eliminated certain loopholes in the process so the rule could go forward on all cylinders. These reforms will produce dividends in the long run.

The next frontier in creating equal opportunity in coaching is building the pipeline of minority offensive coordinators and quarterback coaches. The historic shortfall in these realms has disadvantaged minorities, as clubs have increasingly sought offensive gurus to become head coaches. It is a large part of the reason we have seen the number of minority head coaches in the league drop from eight to four during this hiring cycle. This offseason, we will be working with the league to develop a systematic means of strengthening the pipeline of minority candidates from top to bottom. This, too, will provide long-term dividends for development and opportunities.

Our experience shows that the struggle to level the playing field requires hard work and dedication. Equal opportunity never comes easy. It’s always an uphill struggle. With the support of the American people, we will move forward with the wind at our back.

Cyrus Mehri is a civil rights attorney in Washington D.C. and co-founder of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a not-for-profit advocating on behalf of minority coaches, front office and scouting personnel in the NFL.