By Ray Richardson
As the NFL faces more scrutiny over the lack of Black head coaches on the sidelines, the Fritz Pollard Alliance is standing behind the initiative in its mission to achieve more diversity in the NFL.
The alliance, named after a Black pioneer of professional football who both played and coached in the early days of the National Football League, is facing the challenge of convincing critics of the Rooney Rule that the controversial NFL policy should not be scrapped.
“Where we are today is a result of a lack of commitment to diversity from the top, the owners,” said Rod Graves, executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, last week while he was in town for the Super Bowl. “It has nothing to do with the Rooney Rule. I still believe in the effectiveness and the existence of it. We certainly are an advocate of the Rooney Rule staying in place.”
The Rooney Rule, named after the late Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, was created by the NFL in 2003 after a group of civil rights attorneys headed by the late Johnnie Cochran threatened the league with a lawsuit for unfair labor practices.
Avoiding litigation, the NFL agreed to implement the Rooney Rule, which required all of its teams to interview at least two minority candidates for head coach and upper management positions.
The Rooney Rule, however, has faced mounting criticism because of the lack of progress in hiring Black head coaches and the apparent abuse of the rule by NFL owners. Critics claim NFL owners are interviewing Black candidates for head coaching positions only to remain in compliance with the rule.
Since the creation of the rule, there have been 129 head coaching vacancies. Only 17 of those jobs went to a Black candidate. In the past two years, Black head coaches were hired for only three of 16 openings
“We know we have an enormous amount of work to do,” Graves said. “There hasn’t been the level of change we should expect in this day and age.”
Offensive and defensive coordinators are considered the next step in the process to earning a head coaching job. In the past three Super Bowls, four Black coordinators were on teams that advanced to the championship game: Tampa Bay’s Byron Leftwich (offense) and Todd Bowles (defense), Kansas City’s Eric Bieniemy (offense) and the Rams’ Raheem Morris (defense).
None of the four were offered a head coaching job, and all four helped their teams win a Super Bowl.
The trend led former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores to file a federal lawsuit on Feb. 2, throwing the NFL into another potential legal battle over the lack of Black head coaches. Flores’ lawsuit was a distracting theme for the NFL leading up to the Feb. 13 Super Bowl at SoFi Stadium.
Civil rights leaders, including Rev. Al Sharpton and National Urban League President Marc Morial, have called for the NFL to abolish the Rooney Rule. Opposition to the rule puts the Fritz Pollard Alliance in a tenuous situation, but Graves said his organization believes the rule is the best recourse to change the owners’ hiring practices.
Graves said he wants to meet with Sharpton, Morial and other civil rights leaders to get a better understanding of their position and potential alternatives to the Rooney Rule.
“What we have to be concerned with is any attempt to divert attention away from the responsibilities of decision makers,” Graves said. “Too much emphasis has been put on the Rooney Rule and the context of what it was intended to be. The rule does not take the responsibility for the decision.”
To help change those final decisions, the Fritz Pollard Alliance is planning a new approach in the NFL offseason to keep this issue on the radar of NFL owners. Graves said he and members of the organization will be traveling to all 32 NFL teams to meet with each owner and their front-office executives.
Graves said the intent is to sit down with each team owner to get a better understanding of their diversity efforts, specifically on the need to engage in a more comprehensive hiring process of Black head coaches. Graves indicated that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is supporting the organization’s “offseason tour.”
“This is a positive sign,” Graves said of the in-person visits to each team. “There are things going on that are different from what we’ve experienced in the past. Some things are improving with minority hirings in front-office positions, like general managers, but the numbers aren’t changing in the areas where people are looking the most.”
U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, who attended the Fritz Pollard Alliance luncheon during Super Bowl Week, said the Congressional Black Caucus is “very interested” in the NFL’s Black coaches issue.
Waters declined to say whether the caucus will push for any legislation to make the NFL more accountable, but she indicated the caucus members are curious about Flores’ claims in his lawsuit that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross offered him $100,000 in 2019 for every game he intentionally lost to improve the team’s draft position. The NFL is conducting an independent investigation into Flores’ allegations about Ross.
“When Flores talked about the ‘throwing of games,’ that gives us great latitude to get the Justice Department involved,” Waters said. “The CBC intends to take a deeper look at something like that, and the whole issue of black head coaches.”
Ray Richardson is a contributing writer for The Wave. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.