In late May, the NFL strengthened and expanded the Rooney Rule, its requirement that any club looking for a head coach or general manager must interview at least one person of color. The league did so on the heels of a precipitous drop in the number of people of color holding those positions and vigorous public debate as to whether the league gave a hoot about the stark disproportionality between its player population (overwhelmingly of color), and its head coach and front-office ranks (overwhelmingly white).
Under new regulations, clubs must interview at least two candidates of color for head coach vacancies and at least one candidate of color for offensive, defensive and special teams coordinator vacancies. In addition, the rule applies to senior front-office positions with respect to race and gender.
Just two months after the league expanded the rule, the Washington Football Team seemingly flouted it. The team hired two white executives — Terry Bateman and Julie Donaldson — within two days in mid-July and, by all indications, interviewed nobody of color before doing so.
It is possible that Donaldson’s hire as senior vice president of media passes muster, as the league has been unclear whether the revamped rule requires that each interview slate include racial and gender diversity, but there is not a smidge of public evidence that Bateman’s hire as chief marketing officer passes muster.
In regard to Bateman, the NFL told The Washington Post it was “reviewing the matter with the team to understand the facts.” That was in late July.
The league has stood conspicuously silent since, failing to enforce its enhanced rule or offer substantive public comment on the matter. This silence threatens to erode the NFL community of color’s confidence in the rule as well as undermine the rule itself. The NFL must act, and it must act now. And a glance back at its own history is all the guidance it needs.
Detroit Lions once felt sting of Rooney Rule violation
In early 2003, the league faced a strikingly similar situation. Just months after all 32 NFL club owners agreed to enact the Rooney Rule, the Detroit Lions hired a head coach in contravention of the rule. The Lions wanted Steve Mariucci, and they hired him without interviewing a person of color.
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue had a simple choice: ignore the violation and render the fledgling rule meaningless or enforce it. Tagliabue enforced the rule, fining then Lions general manager Matt Millen $200,000. The league promised a $500,000 fine to the next club that violated the rule and warned franchises against sham processes in which a candidate of color’s interview was a shell of what white candidates received.
Tagliabue’s decision gave the rule teeth, and with the rule firmly in place, the ranks of Black head coaches began to increase (as did the ranks of Black general managers when the Rooney Rule was expanded to that position a few years later). Indeed, as of 2016, the number of general managers of color in the league stood at seven and in 2017 the number of head coaches of color in the league was at eight, both high-water marks.
Why Rooney Rule must be backed up with teeth
Since then, diversity in the league has fallen off a cliff, and as it has, indignities have piled up for candidates of color frozen out of positions the Rooney Rule was designed to open up for fair competition. Super Bowl-winning Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy has missed out on head coaching opportunities as less experienced and less successful white coaches have stepped into those positions.
Jim Caldwell led the Indianapolis Colts to the Super Bowl as their head coach, and in Detroit, he compiled the highest winning percentage (.563) of any Lions head coach since the start of the Super Bowl era before he was fired in 2017. He remains unemployed, while his replacement, Matt Patricia, is sputtering along with a winning percentage a little above .300.
There’s an eroding level of confidence in the league’s commitment to equal opportunity, and in particular, its commitment to the Rooney Rule. The league’s springtime rule expansion signaled a new commitment, but its conspicuous silence with respect to the Washington Football Team’s interviewing processes calls that commitment into question. Having rules means enforcing them. If the league has evidence that Washington fulfilled its obligation under the rule, it must make that known. If the evidence doesn’t exist, the NFL must punish the Washington Football Team for violating the protocol. It is as simple as that.
The league has made a commitment to every person of color aspiring to be an NFL coach or front-office executive that there exists a path forward, and the league doubled down on that promise by strengthening the Rooney Rule this past spring. Proclamations about equal opportunity initiatives make headlines, but the implementation of those initiatives is what makes a difference.
The league gave its word. It is now time to deliver. Commissioner Tagliabue did so in 2003. Commissioner Roger Goodell must do so now.
N. Jeremi Duru is a Professor of Sports Law at American University, leading scholar at the intersection of sport and society, and former counsel to the Fritz Pollard Alliance of coaches, scouts and executives of color in the NFL. He’s on Twitter at @njeremiduru.
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