In a world suddenly engulfed in protest and rage over race relations in the United States, advancing equal opportunity and exposing systematic oppression is at the forefront of American discourse. In the world of sports, the same conversation exists as the NFL recently ramped up its efforts to promote diversity and opportunity across the league.
In the aftermath of the 2003 NFL season, which saw prominent and successful African American coaches Tony Dungy and Dennis Green fired, the league convened to establish a plan to improve opportunities for minority coaching candidates. A study by civil attornies Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri had revealed a problem in the league: ethnic-minority head coaches were hired at lower rates (and fired at higher rates) than white coaches. Spearheaded by Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, the Rooney Rule of 2003 established that NFL teams were required to interview at least one ethnic-minority candidate for head coaching and senior executive positions. Since the rule was implemented, 19 minority head coaches have been hired. Today, only four are still active.
The current lack of ethnic-minority head coaches in the NFL sparked criticism from current and former NFL coaches and executives. Former general manager and league executive Ron Graves expressed his dissatisfaction.
“For all the hoopla that football has become in this country, that kind of progress, or lack of, is shameful,” Graves said in an interview with The New York Times.
Players and executives continued to look for a change. The son of Dan Rooney, current Steelers owner Art Rooney II, was outspoken about the necessity for new policy as well.
"I think where we are right now is not where we want to be, where we need to be," Rooney’s son told Sports Illustrated.
Controversy has come up surrounding the rule multiple times since its establishment. The 2020 league meetings brought a new proposed amendment that quickly seized national attention.
During owners meetings, the NFL proposed a plan to amend the Rule based on incentivizing teams to hire minority head coaches. Incentives for hiring a minority head coach would have included moving up six spots in the third round of the NFL draft before the coach’s second season. If a team hired a minority general manager, they would move up 10 spots in the draft as well. Additionally, teams would receive a fourth round compensatory draft pick for hiring a minority quarterbacks coach.
The proposal was met with criticism from players and coaches.
“The problem is, it can’t be about incentives. It’s got to be about giving the right coaches the right opportunities,” current NFL player and member of the NFLPA executive committee Sam Acho said to The New York Times.
Ultimately, the proposal was tabled. Despite the criticism, the idea paved the way for a resolution that was adopted to further enhance the Rooney Rule.
This year’s additions include an amendment mandating two minority head coaching candidates be interviewed, and one coordinator interview must also go to a minority candidate. Additionally, teams can no longer block coordinators from interviewing for head-coaching spots. The league also implemented a new minority fellowship program to help candidates receive in-depth training on NFL coaching.
Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy was also outspoken about the need for change.
"As a coach, you always want to be judged based upon your own merit,” he told ESPN.
The NFL continues to work on diversifying its coaching landscape with the most recent amendments to the Rooney Rule. The league hopes that new changes to the Rooney Rule will continue to help give minority coaches and front-office staff deserved opportunities to succeed.