Most rules or laws have good intentions behind them. That’s usually what we say when we feel wronged or abused by the regulations and policies that control our lives. Minority coaching candidates in the NFL must feel as though the deck is stacked against them. That’s because the Rooney Rule continues to fall short of the application for which it was constructed.
Let me explain what the Rooney Rule is first of all. In a league where players are disproportionately African-American, head coaches and general managers are mostly caucasion. The Rooney family, owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers, developed a rule that was meant to level the playing field regarding the hiring of minority coaching candidates. In essence, the rule stipulates that for any head coaching vacancy across the league, one minority candidate must be interviewed before a team can make a hire.
The intention sounds pure in its base form. More minorities are being allowed to interview, so there’s bound to be more hired. However, the application has gone awry from its intended use. As of the beginning of the 2020 calendar, there are four minority head coaches — Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, LA Chargers’ Anthony Lynn, Washington’s Ron Rivera and Miami’s Brian Flores. A mere drop in the ocean when there are 32 franchises.
Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy is the most recent example of the rule’s shortcomings. Bienemy, a protégé of Chiefs’ head coach Andy Reid, is viewed as an up-and-comer among the assistant coaching ranks since being promoted from running backs coach to OC after the 2017 season. During the Chiefs’ first-round bye to open the playoffs, Bieniemy saw four different teams about their vacant head coaching positions. At the time of publishing, three of the four vacancies have been filled, with the final one having Bieniemy on the outside looking in as a legitimate prospect. The Rooney Rule has allowed candidates to be invited inside the house for a cup of tea. Yet, after a brief chat, they’re shown the exit — walking past candidates who are much easier to market.
There isn’t an easy fix. But the first step is to get rid of the rule. Well intentioned as it is, the tokenism of the interview process does nothing to break down the door for equality. Yet finding an alternative is also difficult. NFL owners are not going to be open to being forced to hire a minority based on an offshoot or the Rule. As much as success means to a franchise, few are willing to go out on a limb to look for exceptional cases, instead opting for the safe and non-controversial move. We’ve watched owners and players fight back against regulations they felt were unfair. From replay rulings to on-field celebrations, an expansion of the rule will stress an already fragile bond throughout the league. The Rooney Rule has run its course.
In an ideal world, we’re all judged for our merits and not our sexual orientation, race, or ethnicity. In these times of tense political strife, growing social animosity and a widening economic gap, the last thing we need is another weapon of unnecessary division.
The Rooney rule needs to be revised. Preferably that change would come sooner than later — ideally addressed at the next collective bargaining meeting, where owners and player reps gather together to formulate a process that allows the spirit of the rule to be something more than a formality. The NFL has hammered out amendments to rules and CBA deals in a pinch before. There is no reason why the leaders of football can’t come together to figure out a viable solution to diversity. It’s hypocritical for an organization that shouts about its diverse hiring practices to look in the mirror and not see the inconvenient reflection staring back. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you that change is necessary for the league to remain dominant. Whether they figure that out before it’s too late remains to be seen. We only know that the league can’t afford to take a knee on yet another social issue.