Time for NFL to Dump the Rooney Rule

Some non-Michael Vick, non-television contract news managed to trickle out of the NFL owner’s meetings in Florida this week – the league owners are considering expanding the Rooney Rule, currently in place to improve opportunities for minority coaches, to front-office candidates.

It’s enough to make any long-time observer of the NFL’s struggles toward complete inclusiveness to stand up, stretch his arms toward the sky, tilt his head back and shout …

“Are you kidding me?’’

Memo to America’s most powerful sports machine: it’s 2009, not 1959. You guys still need a special rule to hire non-white people to run your football operations? You might have missed it, with all the time you’ve spent recently monitoring end-zone celebrations and the length of socks, but the rest of the country elected an African-American president, who won his party’s nomination over a female opponent. Yet four months into his precedent-setting term, you still have to force teams to drag in a token candidate to interview for your vacant general manager’s job, so you don’t get fined or lose a draft pick.

Way to be observant. Then again, admittedly, NFL owners are distracted right now, because they have a lot to weigh in deciding if Vick should be allowed to play, and if he is, whether any of them want to sign him. It’s no easy choice, weighing community responsibilities against the stated goal of giving your fans a winner.

Funny thing is, on a completely different issue, these owners have a win-win situation. They get to resolve both concerns with the ease of picking up the phone and HIRING A BLACK GM. Or any other racial minority. Just as long as they ease up on dipping into the Matt Millen pool.

So many of them got the hint, at long last, when hiring head coaches like Tony Dungy, Lovie Smith, Mike Tomlin and the like. Of course, that bold leap into the 20th century came only after the aforementioned Rooney Rule had to be put in place, and later tweaked several times, in the face of a threatened lawsuit by Johnnie Cochran.

You would think that this all, the success of that handful of coaches who a decade earlier would have deemed good only for window-dressing, to keep Jesse Jackson off their backs, would have opened the various owners’ eyes and cleared their heads. It would have reminded them that, yes, there are a lot of good football men out there who don’t share their same skin tone and background and associations – and that, in fact, they could afford to broaden those associations, to do the right thing by all the talented and deserving candidates overlooked for so many generations, and as a bonus, become a contender.

Heck, it might all have been enough to allow them to say, “You know, in this day and age, and with this level of achievement by these men, we don’t need to have rules and policies and litigation and penalties dangled over our heads to go find minority coaches. And we need something like this for executive positions even less. Let’s retire the Rooney Rule to its rightful place of honor in our sport’s history, go out and just open the field to all candidates, the way it should be, and hire based on who’s good enough to do the job.’’

That would have been nice. Apparently, that’s not going to happen.

Just as apparently, not enough of those owners have taken notice of a couple of guys named Ozzie Newsome and Jerry Reese. Or the Super Bowls each of them has won while running, respectively, the Baltimore Ravens and the New York Football Giants.

A handful of teams seem to get the big, multi-chromatic picture. The Detroit Lions, for instance, are now in the hands of Martin Mayhew, a former player who has paid his football-operations dues. It only took the single most insulting front-office hire in NFL history, and seven dreadful years under that wretched reign until its belated extinction last season, for Mayhew to get his chance. Of course, he might not have been ready before that, maybe lacked the proper background and credentials, unlike Millen, who sounded real good on TV.

The Lions or the NFL didn’t need a special rule to hire Millen, that’s for sure. They just need one to decrease the possibility of a hiring like that being repeated.

It really doesn’t seem all that complicated, this business of hiring a GM who knows what he’s doing. Or of judging them all by the same criteria, before hiring one and after. If he wins, keep him; if he loses, fire him and go back into the market. African Americans have survived slavery, Jim Crow, fire hoses, police beatings, and Justin Timberlake stealing Michael Jackson’s moves. They can handle someone getting kicked to the curb if he puts a loser onto the field. It’s happened in baseball and basketball for years. Isiah Thomas finally got the heave-ho with the Knicks, and nobody took to the streets in protest.

The days of the special little side door for the minority candidates should be over. Let everybody walk through the front door, finally. The best future general managers are out there among you. By now, you shouldn’t need a special rule to find them.

David Steele is a sports columnist, formerly of the Baltimore Sun and San Francisco Chronicle. He may be reached at

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