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Rooney Rule has failed yet again

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Posted Jan. 12, 2010 @ 1 p.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

There is a horribly misguided rule in the NFL known as the Rooney Rule that mandates clubs to interview a minority when a top position, head coach or the senior front-office spot, opens up.

They just have to interview them, not actually want them to be their coach.

It was named after Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who also was the chairman of the league's diversity committee when it was implemented in 2003. Let me be clear on this: I condone the hiring of minorities to any position in the NFL if indeed they are the most qualified candidate.

But too often, the rule is misused and essentially sidestepped. It was meant to assure that qualified candidates get chances to interview for head-coaching positions and later was expanded to the senior personnel position. But why not assistant coaches? Trainers? Popcorn vendors? Should minorities not have their chance to automatically interview for those positions?

The reason it has been restricted to the top positions is because the NFL wants to put on a dog-and-pony show for the public. It wants the head men — the ones who are most on TV — to appear more diverse. Never mind that there are only about 60 of these jobs around the NFL. Assistants don't get nearly the visibility of head coaches, and thus they are not deemed worthy of this rule.

If I were a minority (I'm Swedish, Polish and a few other things — am I one?), I would be infuriated if I was getting a job for any other reason than merit. And I would be far more upset if a club called me simply to be their token minority when I knew the job was going to someone else.

Take Jerry Gray. He was the Redskins' secondary coach under Jim Zorn, and when Zorn and his staff appeared doomed, he committed what might amount to career suicide: interviewing for Zorn's job while Zorn was still coach.

Everyone in the NFL knew what the Redskins were doing. They wanted Mike Shanahan. They had no interest in making Gray their coach. But he was urged by the Fritz Pollard Alliance — the group named after the only minority head coach in NFL history prior to 1979 — to interview to get his name out there. Oh, it did, all right. And it has hurt Gray's reputation, interviewing for a job that (a) was not open and (b) was never going to be his. He remained on staff for the final awkward weeks of Zorn's failed tenure.

The Steelers point to Mike Tomlin as proof the rule works. Everyone assumed the team's job would go to Ken Whisenhunt or Russ Grimm when Bill Cowher left, but Tomlin came in and blew them away. (And the team already had fulfilled its requirement by interviewing Ron Rivera, who is Puerto Rican.)

But most teams, like the Redskins and Seahawks, appear to try to sidestep the rule. They merely aim for compliance.

If we remember Dr. King's words — judging not by the color of people's skin but by the content of their character — then the Rooney Rule is nothing short of institutionalized racism. I hope more people see how misplaced this affirmative action attempt is. Ask Rivera, who has interviewed for numerous head-coaching jobs around the league but gotten none. He's as good a coach as there is around the league. His players love him. He gets results everywhere he goes. Except, that is, in head-coaching job interviews.

 

PFW has launched its brand-new NFL Draft Newsletter series, with the second issue now ready for mailing. Produced by PFW's player personnel department under the direction of Nolan Nawrocki, the series consists of four information-packed issues. For more info or to subscribe — click here for PDF e-pub or here for print format.

 

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