DMA 7-22 Sports

January 13, 2010 10:00 AM

Fresh Start Due Rooney Rule

OK, let's see if we have this straight.

Gray2.jpgThe Redskins hire Mike Shanahan as their new head coach and give him a 5-year, $35 million contract. The Redskins also interview their secondary coach, Jerry Gray, an African American, for the job. But unless you've been stuck in one of the tunnels beneath Capitol Hill the past month, you know the job was Shanahan's for the taking.

Gray? No chance.

The Seahawks fire coach Jim Mora and tap famed USC coach Pete Carroll to lead Seattle over the next five years for another $35 million. Oh, but wait, Seahawks management first flew to Minneapolis to interview Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, an African American, for the job. Frazier reportedly first declined the interview as clearly the job was going to Carroll from the start.

Frazier? No chance.

So what is it with this NFL Rooney Rule?

Instituted in 2003 to increase the number of head coaches from minority groups, the rule requires that an African American, Hispanic or other minority be interviewed for each NFL head coach opening that arises. The Rooney Rule, the brainchild of Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, chair of the league's workplace diversity committee, is as part of well-intentioned policies in the early part of the 2000s requiring equal employment and workplace diversity in the NFL.

The NFL long has been characterized as a good old boy network of rich white men and remains so today -- despite the proliferation of African-American players in the league, totaling more than 70 percent of rosters.

Many credit the Rooney Rule with bringing diversity into the coaching ranks. Indeed, two of the last three Super Bowl winning coaches - Tony Dungy and Mike Tomlin - have been African American.

And for the 2009 season, seven of the league's 32 head coaches -- Tomlin at Pittsburgh, Marvin Lewis at Cincinnati, Mike Singletary in San Francisco, Perry Fewell at Buffalo, Lovie Smith at Chicago, Raheem Morris at Tampa Bay and Jim Caldwell at Indianapolis -- are African American. Like a Rex Ryan, John Harbaugh and Ken Whisenhunt who have found success in the league after being elevated from assistant coaching jobs, these African Americans are top coaches and leaders of men, too, who also have paid their dues on the gridiron.

On the surface, you want to think of the Rooney Rule as a good thing. Without the rule, maybe there are no minority coaches in the league to this day. In June, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell did the prudent thing and extended the reach of the rule to include senior front office personnel, such as general managers.

Frazier.jpgYet it is just difficult sometimes to square the Rooney Rule with reality.

Take Leslie Frazier -- reportedly a "candidate" for seven NFL head coaching jobs over the past two years when you include Seattle and the current opening in Buffalo. Is Frazier being interviewed multiple times just to comply with the Rooney Rule? It seems so. Frazier may eventually get his shot, but if it looks like a duck, is yellow, quacks and has webbed feet, it must be a duck.

Reports had the Redskins in such a lather over how to comply with the rule that team officials interviewed Gray even before former head coach Jim Zorn was fired - ostensibly to clear the path for Shanahan -- and then wondered if they had to interview him again officially after the firing. Of course, clubs don't want to skirt the rule because the NFL can heap sanctions on them, not to mention resulting negative publicity. Nonetheless, the Gray situation bordered on the farcical.

Bottom line is that Frazier, a man with 22 years of coaching experience whose Viking defense ranked sixth in the NFL this season, didn't have a chance in Seattle. Same was with Gray in Washington. Both coaches, without having previous head coaching opportunities, are just too obscure compared with Carroll and Shanahan.

So what's the point of such a rule? Well ... it is not so black or white.

Look, if Redskins owner Daniel Snyder believes Shanahan is the guy to take his team to the Promised Land, how can that be denied. Shanahan is a coach of renown, a winner of two Super Bowls with Denver in the late 1990s. And if Seattle owner Paul Allen wants Carroll, how can that be denied. Carroll, despite possible NCAA sanctions hovering over USC's football program, won two national titles for the Trojans in nine years, seven PAC 10 titles and developed Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, much less countless other pros.

So why the song and dance with the Rooney Rule for prospective African-American coaches? Why should teams have to go through such a process when they already have their man?

And who can argue against proven winners like Shanahan and Carroll? These guys are huge, moneymaking, PR machines that bring gravitas to your organization. Snyder and Allen are shrewd, billionaire businessmen. If Shanahan and Carroll can make them more money and build their legacies as NFL owners, that is whom they will hire.

One argument for the Rooney Rule is that it brings African-American coaches into the realm of the hiring process and gets them to the interview table when they otherwise would not reached such a point. OK. And consequent with that, if clubs talk with them about head coaching, they also are likely to consider them for coordinator positions, give them raises, thus bumping up those ranks. OK. Gray, according to reports, is on Shanahan's short list to take the reins as Redskins' defensive coordinator, a move that likely would skyrocket his salary.

So unless you are Ted Cottrell, the widely praised old Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator who never could get a head job despite tons of Rooney Rule interviews during the last decade, African-American coaches still would rather have the rule than not have it. Dungy, who has emerged as a conscience of the league since he retired with the Colts at the end of the 2008 season, says the Redskins, in effect, subverted the rule by interviewing Gray before firing Zorn.

Pollard.jpgDungy says the rule needs to be applied properly, but is supportive of the concept and urged all minority candidates to interview if they get the chance. The Fritz Pollard Alliance, an organization named for the former African-American player and coach from the 1920s who was the only black NFL coach until 1979, monitors the league's compliance with the rule and are staunch supporters.

Yet what many will call the mockery of the Rooney Rule simply can correspond with what happens everyday in America. In the real world, you don't go to an interview only not to be considered for the job.

Many writers and observers have called for an end to the Rooney Rule. Given its impetus in getting minority coaches at least recognized and several hired, ending it now is probably not wise. Let's not go back. But tweaking the rule to ensure its continued impact and relevance is needed at the very least. Maybe NFL officials, owners, coaches and others need to put their heads together again and re-think the best way to find common ground on the rule.

Maybe what America needs is a Rooney Rule for government, non-profits, private industry, Wall Street, the media, and college administration and athletics, etc. Maybe that is the legacy of the NFL's efforts and of Fritz Pollard. The league's record of diversity lately has been much better than some other institutions -- despite issues with its sometimes faulty application.

Someday, let's hope America will go for 32 African-American head coaches in the NFL if they were the best people for the job. If Jim Calhoun of Connecticut, Rick Pitino of Louisville, John Calipari of Kentucky and countless other white coaches can gain fame by fielding their rotations exclusively with African-American student athletes in NCAA men's basketball and it's no big deal, why can't it be reversed? Why can't a minority lead a pro football team without it being a big deal?

And if President Barack Obama, an African American, can hire none other than Dan Rooney himself to be U.S. ambassador to Ireland, why can't we see the reverse?

Why can't we see the reverse without a Rooney Rule?

  • Photos: Redskins Jerry Gray, Vikings Leslie Frazier, AP, Fritz Pollard, Brown University

DMA 7-22 Sports is a blog about sports in the Washington-Baltimore market, covering amateurs, colleges and pros. The title DMA 7-22? Means "Designated Market Area," per use of media rating services, signifying Washington is the 7th largest media market in the United States, and Baltimore is the 22nd. You can reach M.V. Greene at

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