What is the NFL's Rooney Rule?

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How effective is the NFL’s Rooney Rule and why does it exist? originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

The NFL regular season has officially drawn to a close, which means the coaching carousel is about to ramp up in high gear. Some established coaches will get a second -- or even third -- chance to lead an NFL sideline, while other positions will be filled by little-known up-and-comers.

With that comes a look back at the NFL hiring practices over the years, starting with the Rooney Rule. The nearly two-decade-old policy is considered one of the most notable and notorious hiring policies and has earned mixed reviews from fans and front offices alike. 

Here’s a look at the Rooney Rule:

What is the Rooney Rule?

The original Rooney Rule, coming up on its 20th year in the league, dictates that all NFL teams must interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching positions. It has since been expanded to include other positions and more provisions. 

What are the changes to the Rooney Rule?

Just in the past two years alone, the Rooney Rule has undergone a series of changes geared toward providing a more specific set of parameters. 

In 2020, team owners approved a system intended to reward teams for developing minority talent into potential head coach or general manager candidates. If a team loses a minority executive or coach to another team, they would receive a third-round compensatory pick for two years. In the event that they lose both a coach and executive, that compensatory pick would be extended for a third year.

Other changes to the rule include requiring interviewing at least two external minority candidates for head coaching vacancies and one external minority candidate for coordinator positions. The Rooney Rule is also applicable to senior level front-office positions and vacancies for the quarterbacks coach, a common pipeline for future head coaches.

What is the origin of the Rooney Rule?

The policy was first implemented ahead of the 2003 regular season in response to the firing of head coaches Tony Dungy and Dennis Green. 

Dungy built a 54-42 record over six seasons with the Buccaneers before being fired in early 2002. Jon Gruden went on to lead Tampa Bay to the franchise’s first Super Bowl championship, but Dungy is still widely credited for having developed the stellar defensive unit that allowed less than 11 points per game that season. Meanwhile, Green had made the playoffs eight of his nine seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, but was fired midway through the 2001 season after going 5-10.

Green and Dungy were respectively only the third and fifth Black or African-American coaches hired to lead NFL teams at the time. Their firings prompted scrutiny and an investigation by civil rights attorneys who determined that when “compared statistically, black head coaches have a higher winning percentage than their white NFL counterparts, but were still more likely to be fired.” 

With this information made public, agents, coaches, front-office personnel and players came together to pressure the NFL to institute a more equitable interview process. The resulting policy was named after Dan Rooney, then-owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and chairman of the league’s diversity committee.

How effective is the Rooney Rule?

The initial results from the Rooney Rule were promising -- with the percentage of African-American or Black head coaches in the NFL rising from 6% to 22% within three seasons.

As times goes by -- and stories of Rooney Rule violations emerged -- the picture gets a little more complicated. By the end of the 2021 regular season, only one Black coach -- Mike Tomlin -- remained employed. The Washington Commanders’ Ron Rivera, who is Latino, and New York Jets’ Robert Saleh, who is of Lebanese descent, are the only other coaches who qualify as candidates within the Rooney Rule. 

That same season, David Culley and Brian Flores were both fired from their head coaching posts. Flores’ termination came as a surprise to many considering he was coming off back-to-back winning seasons – a franchise first since 2001. However, the question of discriminatory hiring practices reached a fever pitch in the months following. 

In early February 2022, Flores filed a lawsuit against the NFL, the Dolphins, the Denver Broncos and the New York Giants alleging discrimination in his interview process. 

Flores’ primary evidence for the allegations? A text message from Patriots head coach Bill Belichick congratulating him on being named the next head coach for the Giants…sent the day before Flores was set to interview for the position. 

Turns out the message was intended for a different former assistant of Belichick’s also named Brian -- Brian Daboll, who was later named head coach for the Giants.

While the league continues to add more provisions to its hiring practices, the Flores’ lawsuit is potentially a reminder of the many shortcomings of the Rooney Rule.

What is the penalty for violating the Rooney Rule?

When the Rooney Rule was originally implemented, it was said to come with penalties ranging from fines to a loss of draft picks. In the two decades since, the Detroit Lions are the only team to receive any sort of penalty -- a $200,000 fine and no loss of draft picks.