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  • Writer's pictureGreg Rhodes

Martin Luther King Day, Equality, and the NFL's Rooney Rules

In remembrance today of the great Martin Luther King Jr. and his teachings on equality, we take a look at the sports side of things. Just how far has the NFL come, how much further do they need to go, and what more could they do.

Heading in to the 2021 NFL season, there were a total of 5 non-white head coaches in the NFL; David Culley-Houston Texans, Brian Flores-Miami Dolphins, Mike Tomlin-Pittsburgh Steelers, Ron Rivera-Washington Football Team, and Robert Saleh-New York Jets. By the end of the season, 2 had already been relieved of their duties in Flores and Culley. One, Culley, being a first year head coach and the other, Flores, leading his team to back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in nearly 20 years. And while there were other circumstances that surrounded those decisions, it is impossible to not include race as a possible factor. Just look at these numbers published by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) out of the DeVos Sports Business Program at the University of Central Florida;

That is the breakdown of players in the league by race. And with 75% of the players of the league being non-white, and this not being a new phenomenon with TIDES breaking down numbers as far back as 1990 where at least 64% of the league was non-white, how is there such a small amount of representation at the highest coaching level? Well, the NFL says that it is because of coaching development and have added some incentives for teams to develop the next group of head coaches. But what does that look like?

The Rooney Rule and The Future

The Rooney Rule itself isn't a new concept. Started in 2003, the rule originally required all teams to interview at least 1 minority candidate for any vacant head coaching positions. But this also lead to another issue, where you would often see teams ignore the spirit of the rule and you would often see the same name interviewing with multiple teams and never getting the job. As an example, since 2018 the Kansas City Chiefs have had one of the top offenses in the league under Offensive Coordinator Eric Bieniemy and in that time Bieniemy has interviewed for 7 different jobs. He is still currently the OC for the Chiefs and is expected to be on all those same lists again this year. And while you can certainly make the argument that each of those teams made a choice on who was best for their franchise, I encourage you to take a look at how many of those same coaches have been fired since that interview.

But in the mean time, the NFL has made some adjustments to the Rooney Rule. It is now a part of the hiring process for top level team positions as well as the NFL offices and instead of only 1 minority candidate, the teams are now required to interview 2 external minority candidates for openings at head coach, coordinator positions, and general manager. A step in the right direction for sure, and with a league pool of assistant coaches currently at 42% non-white the talent pool is greater than ever. The NFL is now even incentivizing teams for growing minority coaching talent in the way of draft picks. Starting in 2020, if a team has a minority employee, who has been in the organization for at least 2 consecutive years, who is under contract and is then hired away by another organization into the role of head coach or general manager that team will receive 2 3rd round picks. One in each of the next 2 drafts. And if they have a second person hired away, they will receive an additional pick.

And draft picks are a great incentive. Teams value those more than the players they actually pick with the selection sometimes and is true incentive. But does it do enough? We are already approaching a 50/50 share of assistant coaches being non-white, how can we get them into those roles?

More Interviews and Expansion

Obviously an easy answer is more positions. The NFL is in a unique position as the #1` sporting brand in the United States and with followers all over the country and cities that would love to have them. And as an Orlando based blog, I would be remiss if I were to not mention Orlando's perfect setup as a potential NFL expansion site. Great weather, already a tourist destination, and a growing population and TV rights area make it a perfect combination. But there are other cities around the US like Oklahoma City, Memphis, and even Chicago with a second team and outside like London that are all excellent opportunites for the NFL. And with those teams come the need for experienced front office teams, coaching staffs, ownership groups and everything else that goes into a franchise. And with the deepest pool of minorities available in the history of the league, it would open up some amazing opportunities.

But on the same hand, these aren't happening tomorrow. There is a league right now that has current openings that you will see only have the minimum of 2 coaches or front office staff interviewed and the team leadership moves on. What can be done to change that? Well, I will serve it up to you like this. Make it equal. With the number of players in the league that we discussed earlier and the number of available assistant coaches why not take the next step in the Rooney Rule. For every white candidate interviewed, a non-white candidate should be interviewed. It should be that simple. And if you have a list of 10 white coaches you want to interview, you should have a list of 10 non-white coaches you should want to interview. With where the employment numbers are trending according to the TIDES report this is more than attainable and I believe creates as close to an even playing field for these positions as possible. And at that point I believe you come closer to actually hiring the best person available for the job, instead of still watching Eric Bieniemy run the best offense in the league for another 3 years as a coordinator.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

But what do you think? Is this even realistic? What about the GM and ownership level roles? Let me know in the comments or reach out on social media @mySportsFlorida on Twitter and Instagram. Also, a quick shout out to TIDES at UCF. They have put together diversity reports on all the major sports leagues and have done a great job collecting all the data and information on all the diversity and inclusion progams of these leagues. If you would like to read more on this subject I highly recommend checking out the link:

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