Adding incentives to Rooney Rule still won't fix lack of diversity in NFL head coach, GM roles

It just kind of feels like putting lipstick on a pig.

NFL team owners are expected to pass a resolution on Tuesday that rewards franchises who lose minority coaches and front-office personnel to another team, an enticement for developing candidates who other teams go on to hire for head coaching or general manager roles.

A compensatory third-round draft pick for each of the next two seasons would be the prize. Lose two minority staffers to head coach and general manager roles in one year and a team would get three third-round compensatory picks.

As an example, if the rule goes into effect immediately, if a team looking for a head coach finally wakes up and hires offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy from the Kansas City Chiefs this cycle, the Chiefs would get extra draft picks in 2021 and 2022.

Eric Bieniemy smiles while answering questions during a Super Bowl media session.
Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy is still waiting for a head coaching opportunity. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

This idea is certainly better than giving a team that hires a minority head coach or GM the prize, as was floated previously. Doing that would have made things harder for the new hire the minute they walked in the door. Were they hired because they were the best option, period? Or a good option who became the hire due to the prospect of getting two draft picks? Plus, you need a middling present for making a modicum of progress, like a toddler learning to potty train who gets stickers as a reward for remembering to use the bathroom instead of their pull-up?

Neither option feels especially good. The people who toil in the NFL are proud, and the Black men, in particular, don’t want it to seem as though they’re being “given” anything. Even though there are many who have earned a chance, even a chance to fail (hello, Adam Gase and Freddie Kitchens).

And there isn’t an easy answer. American culture for centuries has been predicated on dehumanizing and demeaning Black people, of saying African American men are lazy, dumb, unreliable and insert-negative-adjective-here, and it’s hard to let go of that kind of ingrained bias.

Consider on the field, at the position where many long believed Black players lacked the requisite intelligence, it took the NFL over 50 years to go from Marlin Briscoe starting five games at quarterback for the Denver Broncos in 1968 (and never starting at the position again), to 10 Black quarterbacks starting for their respective teams in Week 1 this season.

Letting go of those biases is the best answer, as is letting go of the fear that some team owners seem to have that they won’t have anything in common with a Black head coach or GM because pretty much none of them grew up in the country club world that the billionaires did. Free advice: Family and a desire to win are universal. Start there.

The fact that the constant amendments to the Rooney Rule and this new resolution are necessary serve as a reminder that those same team owners are why they are still needed.

This is a group of people so stuck in its antiquated ideas that it has to be forced to interview non-white candidates for the biggest roles on the football side of their business. Adults who own sports teams with rosters that feature roughly two-thirds Black players should not, in 2020, be forced to consider men who look like those players to lead those players or choose those players.

Unless they want us to assume they’re so narrow-minded that they really believe there are only five Black men on all of planet Earth with the intelligence, personality and leadership ability to be an NFL head coach or general manager.

At this moment, there are only five Black men in one of those 64 roles. If you include Ron Rivera, who is of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent and is both head coach and de facto GM in Washington, there are six non-white men in those roles full-time.

Brian Flores, wearing a mask and a headset, walks the sideline during a game.
Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores is one of four minority head coaches currently in the NFL. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Any head coach or executive worth their salt should be investing time into developing those on their staff, even for selfish reasons. A stronger staff, whether in the coaching rooms or scouting office, in theory should lead to more wins, and everyone keeping their jobs. That should be reward enough.

Instead of trying to incentivize team owners with third-round picks or having the Fritz Pollard Alliance do the work of vetting non-white candidates for them every year only to see them so often given a box-checking interview, what about taking the Rooney Rule a step further? When a team gets to its three finalists, if one of them isn’t non-white they have to scrap the search and start over. It’s a method used more and more often in academia and the corporate world.

With a time element involved and competition for the “best” candidates usually high, it would force those in charge of hiring to truly consider all candidates.

Again, there isn’t an easy answer.

But a token reward for doing the job of making sure everyone on your staff gets a chance to grow and develop feels like lipstick on a pig.

Unless this lipstick turns pigs into head-coaching, roster-building unicorns.

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