Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Rooney Fooled?

In the past week, the Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks have exposed the inadequacy and utter permeability of the rule that the NFL has imposed to ensure that more minority applicants garner opportunities to interview for head coaching positions. Regardless of what consequences will be doled out to these teams, the message appears clear: The Rooney Rule may as well be known as the Rooney Gentle Suggestion.

In hiring Mike Shanahan (replacing Jim Zorn) as their head coach, the Washington Redskins publicly (and, many would contend, tackily) courted their replacement candidate in a search with an end so transparent it smacked of M. Night Shyamalan. The Redskins neither took the recommended amount of time to search for new candidates or follow the edict that qualified minority candidates be granted interview opportunities. Just what you’d expect from the Redskins, the only professional sports team to be federally ordered to desegregate its team back in the 60’s.

The Seahawks played by the rules, though, they are being mentioned in the same breath with the Redskins as evidence that the Rooney Rule casts as unimposing a shadow over the NFL as the Black Coaches Association Report Card casts over NCAA Football. Both are well-intentioned ideas that lack teeth. Frankly, so far as we know, the Seahawks may have intended to hire Leslie Frazier, a helluva ball coach with NFL pedigree (won a Super Bowl in ’85 with the Chicago Bears) over Pete Carroll if he interviewed well (of if Carroll removed his name from the search). However, most pundits agree that this was merely a move to satisfy the requirements of the Rooney Rule, while ignoring the spirit of the rule. So much for the Left Coast leaning that way.

In one instance, we have a case where business as all too usual prevailed, and the Washington Redskins made the move best for their fiscal interests and their pursuit of greatness, not the equally important (though less lucrative) pursuit of social justice. In replacing Jim Mora, however, the Seahawks interviewed a qualified minority candidate and selected a more qualified and accomplished non-minority coach. Leslie Frazier will be a head coach in the NFL someday if he keeps producing as he has, it just won’t be in 2010. That isn’t unjust. But let’s say, for instance, that the Seahawks intended to hire Pete Carroll all along. All they would need to do is bring in someone like Frazier, run him through the process, and decide on their de facto candidate. Though we know that the Redskins did not follow the rule and should be sanctioned (the NFL levied a $200,000 fine against the Detroit Lions when they violated the rule in 2003), the Seahawks could just have easily done so, and would get away with it. Many other NFL teams have been accused of doing just that in the past few years.

I would never say that the need for the Rooney Rule does not exist. For years mediocre white coaches were hired again and again (think Norv Turner, with 5 winning seasons in 12 years and three different teams) to lead teams while very qualified and talented minority coaches could hope only to work their way up to coordinator positions. Black coaches who were hired and sustained success were fired anyhow and struggled to find subsequent opportunities (think Art Shell, a 54-38 record in 6 seasons, fired after a winning season, then re-hired to coach one of the worst teams in the NFL and fired after a 2-14 season). When the Rooney Rule was instituted in 2003, only 6% of NFL coaches were black, even though there were many qualified candidates. In 2009, 22% of the coaches are black, and there are many more qualified individuals in the pipeline. Comparatively speaking, 8% of college coaches are black (the number has doubled since the end of the 2009 season), though the NCAA does not have a comparable rule in place to enforce the interviewing of minority candidates.

But the rule needs to be revisited, for several reasons, all of which are revealed by the recent actions of the Redskins and the Seahawks:

1) NFL teams do not have to follow the rule. Even if the Washington Redskins are fined $200,000 or more, will this be a corrective to the behavior? Not likely. And it certainly won’t spur a boycott of their team that could be financially disastrous, or any kind of federal or local government intervention. Hell, it probably won’t even bring a lawsuit. In this instance, the rule is toothless.

2) NFL teams can satisfy the rule disingenuously. Again, I am only speculating as to what Seattle’s intent may have been, but if they intended all along to hire Carroll, and the Frazier interview was perfunctory, then in this instance, the rule is hollow.

3) The Rooney Rule addresses a symptom, not a root cause. Racism has long been a problem in the United States, and the panacea of sport is no exception. The reason that black coaches did not have opportunities to become head coaches is part of an embedded, institutionalized problem much bigger than professional football, and no rule to which only NFL teams are subject will change that. Sure, it can have a significant impact, but so long as this rule prompts chicanery and loopholing rather than serious retrospection about hiring practices (not just at the head coaches level, but throughout the organizations) the rule will be circumvented and the root causes of racism will continue to deny opportunities to qualified minorities in professional football.

The Rooney Rule is no Golden Rule, applicable in all times in all places to all people. That is why, in some cases, the rule besmirches the name and efforts of its namesake in a way that not only he would find, personally, foul.