Will Rooney Rule revamp work? Onus is on NFL to snuff out sham interviews and team owners to get serious.

Terez Paylor
Senior NFL writer

Ever since details of the NFL’s controversial proposal incentivizing teams to hire minorities first leaked last week, much of the coverage surrounding the league’s diversity issue has revolved around that very topic, so much so that it has been easy to miss the other significant development that sprang from the same fountain of inclusion.

That development, which was announced Tuesday, was the NFL’s decision to implement the most sweeping expansion to the much-maligned Rooney Rule since it was created in 2002.

Teams will now be required to interview at least two external minority candidates for a head coaching job instead of one. They will also be required to interview one external minority candidate for coordinator, general manager and senior football operations positions, as well as a wide-range of executive positions instead of none.

Additionally, clubs passed a resolution that will bar teams from blocking assistant coaches from interviewing for coordinator jobs with other teams, something that thrilled many assistants throughout the league, regardless of race.

This is a big deal, one minority NFL assistant coach told Yahoo Sports, because assistants who are under contract get blocked all the time.

“Hell, sometimes you don’t even know if a team has requested to interview you,” the coach said. “The organization won’t tell you that someone wanted to interview you. It’s long overdue.”

Washington Redskins head coach Ron Rivera is one of four minority head coaches currently in the NFL. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Inside NFL’s task force on diversity

All this should be, in theory, a step forward for a league that is struggling with diversity. Still, a significant problem looms on the potential effectiveness of all these measures. The same people who created the NFL’s diversity problem are the same ones doing the hiring.

And to be sure, the NFL’s diversity problem is real.

For starters, there are only four minority head coaches and two minority general managers, numbers there are down significantly from only a couple years ago. That this could happen in 2020 is unconscionable, and that’s exactly what those who worked closely with the NFL on the revised Rooney Rule are trying to remedy.

One of those people is Rod Graves, a former executive for the Chicago Bears, Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets. After a stint in the league office, Graves, 61, is now the executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an organization that fights to increase minority representation throughout the NFL. Since February, Graves has been a part of a task force that includes former league executives and coaches, including Tony Dungy, the first black coach to win a Super Bowl, and several attorneys and academics. The group has worked hand-in-hand with commissioner Roger Goodell and the league’s workplace diversity committee to craft the changes that were implemented Tuesday. 

“The one thing that I think we all have in common … is that we love the National Football League,” Graves told Yahoo Sports. “And to me, this is no different than taking a body that has some cancerous area and making sure that we’re going to work to remedy that part of the body.

“You know, this is a great game we have, and it’s been good to all of us. But this is an area that we have to fix in order for the league to be the best it can be. We can’t do it without it, and I think what we accomplished today was a significant first step.”

Graves understands why there is skepticism. Again, the same people who have failed so miserably to promote diversity — the team owners — will be the ones still doing the hiring, a fact that leads to no shortage of cynicism from minority employees scattered across the league’s 32 teams.

“Even if you have the rule in place, teams would have to be proactive,” one veteran minority personnel man recently told Yahoo Sports.

Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy's stock has been rising in recent years, but he has not yet landed a head coaching job. (Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The positives of a Rooney Rule expansion

Graves is optimistic the Rooney revisions will eventually take. For one, he says he believes Goodell is sincere in his desire to push the NFL toward being more diverse. Additionally, the negative attention the NFL continues to get on this issue makes it hard for the league to be inactive.

“I think times have changed now — I think we’re in a period of time where people are asking more questions, and it’s not just the people who used to be cited as disgruntled,” Graves said, referring to minority employees throughout the league. “I think there’s an expectation of fans, of sponsors, of media and others … to ask the question, ‘Why aren’t there more minorities in leadership roles? Why are we still in an area where minorities can be used for the production of business but can’t lead?’ Those are tough questions that I believe the NFL has to answer.

“And so with that, I just think that the climate is different today than it was five years ago, than it was 10 years ago and certainly different than it was 20 years ago.”

And it’s because of that, Graves said, that he’s seeing a different level of commitment from the league.

“There are teams out there who get it, who are doing a very good job with respect to diversity,” Graves said. “But we have not mobilized on a league level [like this] to address this issue, and that, to me, is what’s different [this time]. I believe it’s there now, and I think it’s going to become even stronger as the weeks and months progress.”

N. Jeremi Duru, a sports law professor at American University who wrote a book on the creation of the Rooney Rule called “Advancing The Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL,” largely agrees, noting that in theory, the Rooney Rule revision expands it in a positive manner.

“But whether the rule has teeth is untold — that will be seen when we look at [the league’s] enforcement [of it],” Duru told Yahoo Sports. “Because there have been multiple times over the years where there have been determinations made by clubs with respect to the interview processes that the league has viewed as being compliant with the Rooney Rule … that a lot of folks have felt has been non-compliant with the rule. So there hasn’t been enforcement where a lot of folks have felt that enforcement should have come to pass. 

“And so, if indeed we see the league truly scrutinize the interviews to ensure they’re meaningful interviews, to ensure that interviewees of color are getting the same experience as interviewees who aren’t of color, then we’ll know that the rule has more teeth.”

One positive, Duru noted, comes in the fact that these Rooney Rule revisions were implemented at all.

“Two years ago, all of these proposals with respect to expansion of the rule were roundly rejected, and two years later, they’re accepted,” Duru said. “So that indicates to me that the NFL is serious about this, and thinking about this as a bit more of an emergency than they thought it was two years ago. And if that’s the case, then I think true enforcement could follow.”

How the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell enforce the expanded Rooney Rule will show whether or not the league takes diversity seriously. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

What to watch in enforcement of the revised rule

The onus falls on the league office to do so, especially after a conference call with reporters on Tuesday where Goodell said the league is “not satisfied with where we are” on diversity, and added that “we know we can and should do better.” Goodell also said the league will continue to look at additional steps to improve the now-tabled plan to incentivize teams to hire minority candidates with the lure of improved draft picks.

Meanwhile Troy Vincent, an African-American former player who is the NFL’s head of operations, also worked with the task force to develop the revisions that were recently implemented. He pledged on the same call that the fight for equality within league ranks is not over.

“This fight has been going on for a long, long time,” Vincent said. “The facts are, we have a broken system, and we’re looking to implement things to change the direction we’re going.”

There’s now a comprehensive plan to fix it, Vincent added, one that should be buoyed by the fact the league office has figured out how to measure the retention of women and other minorities throughout the league by collecting centralized data. 

“Now, as employees, we’re all held accountable to do the right thing,” Vincent said. 

Teams in the league still have to prove they can do just that. Like many veteran, minority personnel men who spoke to Yahoo Sports last week, Graves sees Tuesday’s development as a step to improve diversity in the NFL, but acknowledges there’s still much work to do.

“It’s going to be a period of monitoring and adjustments and coming back and trying to get it right, because anything that you see passed today may not necessarily be in effect a year from now,” Graves said. “Hopefully, if it’s not, we’ve got a better approach — we’ve identified a better solution. I see this system as a comprehensive approach that will involve a number of steps to make sure that it is sustainable for the long haul.”

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