The Rooney Rule is a sham, and based on recent coaching hires, NFL team owners know it

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)
(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)

For all intents and purposes, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell ended the Rooney Rule in 2018.

It still exists on paper, and the league continues to tinker with it in performative efforts to "strengthen" the policy, but in early 2018, Goodell signaled to team owners that the rule was little more than window dressing.

Team owners' moves since then show they very much picked up his cue.

If you recall, that's when Raiders team owner Mark Davis finally landed the head coach of his dreams: Jon Gruden. Davis was so obsessed with Gruden, who had coached the franchise years earlier when his late father was still running the team, that even as he hired and then extended Jack Del Rio as head coach, he made it clear more than once that he "was in love with Jon, and if he ever got the chance, he was going to hire him," Del Rio has said.

As the 2017 season came to a close, it was an open secret that Gruden had finally acquiesced to Davis' many advances and would leave the ESPN booth to return to coaching. Davis admitted to reporters in early January 2018 that he had come to an agreement with Gruden weeks earlier. So if the two alleged interviews that Davis did at some point with two Black coaches, including Tee Martin, then an assistant coach at USC, and Bobby Johnson, the team's tight ends coach, didn't already look like shams, Davis confirmed that they effectively were.

Despite clear evidence, after a quick investigation (wink, wink), Goodell said Davis and the Raiders were not in violation of the Rooney Rule and declined to fine or otherwise punish the club owner and team.

That day, Goodell sent up the signal to all franchise owners: The rule is there, but you don't have to honor it.

At the start of that 2018 season, there were seven Black head coaches. As of this writing, there are two.

The Houston Texans fired Lovie Smith as head coach after one season. He's the second straight Black head coach who lasted only a season with the Texans, despite extraordinarily tough circumstances. (Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images)

Rooney Rule started strong before hitting a wall after five years

For much of its 20 years of existence the Rooney Rule has felt like little more than public relations, though in its early years, it yielded hopeful results in improving the diversity of NFL head coaches, particularly Black coaches. Implemented at the start of the 2003 hiring cycle, it led to seven Black head coaches being hired in its first five years, when there were 32 total openings. Prior to that, the modern league had seen only four full-time Black head coaches, beginning with Art Shell with the Raiders in 1989. (Fritz Pollard was player-coach of the Akron Pros in 1921, before the league started dropping Black players from rosters in 1926 and banning them entirely from 1934 to 1946.)

Since that initial five-year bump, which included then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue fining the Detroit Lions in 2003 for failing to interview any non-white candidates, just 17 more Black head coaches have been hired in 15 years, with 100 vacancies filled in that time. We have seen a Latino head coach (Ron Rivera, twice), an Arab American coach (Robert Saleh) and a biracial coach (Mike McDaniel) hired in that span as well.

We are now at the start of the fifth hiring cycle since Goodell waved off Davis' clear violation, with five teams in search of a new head coach. Over the previous four, there were 30 job openings. Four went to Black men, and two of those men, David Culley and Lovie Smith, were hired and fired by the calamity known as the Houston Texans after one season.

A third, Brian Flores, was fired by the Miami Dolphins after two years, when he says he refused his team owner's advances to tamper with players and tank games. (The NFL ultimately punished the Dolphins for tampering but says it found no evidence of tanking.)

The fourth, Todd Bowles, finished his first season in charge of the Buccaneers.

"The spirit of the Rooney Rule was tremendous," former New York Giants front-office executive and current XFL vice president of football operations Marc Ross told Yahoo Sports. "The actual thought behind it, the executing it and the consequences and all that, is less to be desired, and it still is, and it's worse than ever.

"You don't need to talk about philosophies. You don't need to talk about intent. It's just the numbers. And the facts say it's almost been a disaster."

'All that matters is 32 billionaire owners'

Over the years, the rule has been tweaked, with teams now having to interview two non-white candidates for head coach and general manager openings. Teams that have a minority coach or executive hired away for one of those jobs receive two mid-round draft picks as a (pathetic) prize for developing them.

Interviewing teams dutifully report on the meetings via social media, sure to include headshots so everyone can see they're checking the box to bring in non-white prospects.

One particularly galling incident happened a year ago involving the Minnesota Vikings. During their head coach search, the Vikings brought in Patrick Graham, who had completed his second year as Giants defensive coordinator. No sooner had the Vikings tweeted that they'd wrapped their time with Graham did one NFL Network reporter tweet that Michigan's Jim Harbaugh was headed in the following day, "with confidence that he'll land the job."

While Harbaugh didn't ultimately get the gig, the Vikings selected a young, relatively inexperienced, white coach, Kevin O'Connell. The reporting seemed to affirm that the trip was a waste of time for Graham, the hours of preparation he put into his presentation for naught.

Too often, the effort Black coaches like former Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham put into preparing for head coaching interviews feels like a waste of time. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Too often, the effort Black coaches like former Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham put into preparing for head coaching interviews feels like a waste of time. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

This is what Black coaches go through year after year. Give it a few more seasons, they're told. Work harder on pitches for teams. Come to an incubator, and listen to an out-of-touch billionaire say without a hint of irony that a friend with a membership to Augusta National golf course is a key to success.

"I've always said: 'It does not matter all the initiatives, it does not matter all the trainings, it doesn't matter about any of that, all that matters is 32 billionaire owners, and if they don't change, nothing will change,'" Ross said.

It feels like nothing will change this go-around either.

Where current Black candidates stand in today's coaching cycle

San Francisco defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans is the only Black coordinator generating a lot of buzz for head coach. Now in his second year as coordinator and sixth as a coach after a decade-long playing career, Ryans guides one of the best defenses in the league. As of this writing, four of the five teams looking for a head coach have requested to interview the 38-year-old.

Steve Wilks, absurdly fired after one season with the Arizona Cardinals in 2018, was named interim head coach of the Panthers seven games into this season. Despite starting three quarterbacks and watching Carolina trade away its best offensive skill player in Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers went 6-6 under Wilks, who is Black, and nearly won their division. Players love him, but there is little expectation that impetuous owner David Tepper will hire him full-time.

Colts owner Jim Irsay stunned people inside and outside the league when he named Jeff Saturday, a beloved offensive lineman with not a single day of coaching experience beyond high school, interim coach midseason and indicated in a media event that "hopefully" Saturday, who is white, will be coach for longer than that. When pressed about the decision, Irsay got defensive. Since he has hired Black head coaches in the past (Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell), he seems to believe he's exempt from considering them in the present and future.

Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy has kept his group rolling, even without receiver Tyreek Hill, but after years of being passed over, it feels like he will never get an opportunity.

Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy has guided one of the best offenses in the NFL the past five years, yet he continues to be passed up for head-coaching jobs. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann)
Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy has guided one of the best offenses in the NFL the past five years, yet he continues to be passed up for head-coaching jobs. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann)

If there's doubt that Bieniemy's situation doesn't reek of racial bias, consider this February 2022 study in The Review of Black Political Economy: When researchers Joshua D. Pitts and John D. Johnson of Kennesaw State and Brent Evans of Georgia College and State University flipped Bieniemy's race from Black to white in their statistical model and left all other data the same, Bieniemy's chance of being hired as a head coach went up 15%. That same study found that "all else equal, Black coordinators who played in the NFL have been less likely to be promoted than similar non-Black coordinators. Furthermore, there was evidence that Black coordinators were significantly less likely to be promoted between 2018 and 2020."

Leslie Frazier has led the Buffalo Bills defense to a first- or second-place finish in points allowed in three of the past four seasons but still hasn't gotten a second chance as a head coach, nearly a decade after his Vikings tenure ended. Byron Leftwich's star has unfairly been dulled because Tampa Bay wasn't an offensive juggernaut this season. The Texans' tire fire will likely affect the Los Angeles Chargers' Pep Hamilton, who will once again be overlooked despite playing a foundational role in the rise of media darling Justin Herbert.

And don't get me started on the absurdity of the situation involving Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris. Several of head coach Sean McVay's other coordinators, all white, have been hired as head coaches — and the offensive coordinators didn't call plays, which is allegedly a requirement for a head coach — but Morris wasn't hired, despite being in charge of a group that played a big role in Los Angeles' win in Super Bowl LVI.

Morris served as the Falcons' interim head coach in 2020, getting a 4-7 finish out of a team that started 0-5, but hasn't gotten a second chance at a full-time head-coaching job since his rocky tenure with the Buccaneers ended more than a decade ago. Josh McDaniels, who also became a first-time head coach in 2009 with Morris and was fired after 28 games to Morris' 48, has gotten two other chances since, including when he backed out on Indianapolis at the last second.

The wild thing is, multiple studies have shown that diverse leadership in companies leads to better results — generally meaning more money. The NFL owner class has shown repeatedly that it cares about money over everything, yet it still has to be enticed into developing and promoting non-white employees, and every year there are pleas for change and columns calling them to the carpet on their dreadful record of hiring Black head coaches in particular.

Nothing has changed. Incredibly, it feels like things have actually gotten worse.

Five years ago, Goodell gave Mark Davis a free pass, and the other owners know they will get one, too.

This article contains affiliate links; if you click such a link and make a purchase, we may earn a commission.