In 2003 only six percent of the NFL’s head coaches were black. Since then the numbers are up to 22 percent. Head coaches such as Lovie Smith (above) have benefited from the Rooney Rule. Photo by Jeff Lewis
By Jason Lewis
Fritz Pollard was the first black head coach in the NFL, when he was a player/coach for the Akron Pros in 1921. Unfortunately for Pollard and the eight other black players in the NFL at that time, they were kicked out of the league in 1926. After 1933 the NFL would not see another black player until 1946, when a contract between the Cleveland Rams and the Los Angeles Coliseum stated that the Rams had to integrate the team.
Even scarcer from the history of the NFL were black head coaches. After Pollard, nearly 70 years went by without one, until Art Shell became the head coach of the Los Angeles Raiders in 1990.
But Shell’s hiring did not open the doors for a lot of black coaches. Over the next 13 years only four other black coaches were hired as head coaches (Dennis Green, Ray Rhodes, Tony Dungy, and Herm Edwards.)
Dungy had been a head-coaching prospect as early as the 1980s, but he was passed up year after year until he finally was named the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1996. At the time Dungy was 45 years old.
Jon Gruden, who is white, was named head coach of the Oakland Raiders at the age of 35, and more recently, Josh McDaniels, who is also white, was named the head coach of the Denver Broncos at 32 years old. Edwards was 47 years old, Green was 43 and Rhodes 45 when they were hired as head coaches.
Black coaches were getting passed up for years while white coaches accelerated to the top of their profession at a much faster rate.
There was a major problem, and the solution, as controversial as it sounded at the time, was the Rooney Rule, which was created by Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the chairman of the league’s diversity committee.
The rule forces NFL teams to interview a minority candidate when they have a head coach vacancy.
This rule caused an uproar from both blacks and whites. A lot of black people felt that this would lead to token interviews. Interviews that would just satisfy a rule but not lead to a job. Many white people thought that this was some form of affirmative action and labeled it reverse racism.
Well both sides were wrong, because the rule has been nothing but a success for the black coaches and the NFL.
When the rule was introduced in 2003 there were only two black coaches, Dungy and Edwards. That is only 6% of the league’s coaches. At the beginning of the 2009 season, nine black head coaches had been hired since the rules inception, which is the most in any period in the history of the NFL. 22% of the head coaches in the NFL are now black.
The means to which the NFL has gone to increase the amount of black coaches is not perfect, because there have been some token interviews, but the fact that more black head coaches have been hired than any of period shows that the end justifies the means.
The Rooney Rule had a goal to increase the amount of minority coaches, and it did just that. For black coaches to get the jobs, they needed to be in the interview process, and that’s what this rule does.
Take Mike Tomlin for example. He was certainly not the frontrunner for the Steelers job. Ken Whisenhunt, who was the Steelers offensive coordinator, was the leading man for the position, but Tomlin was given the interview and he wowed the Steelers brass so much that they hired him.
Tomlin went on to lead the Steelers to a Super Bowl victory in 2008, defeating the Arizona Cardinals, who were coached by Whisenhunt.
The last four Super Bowls have featured four black head coaches, with Dungy and Tomlin winning the title.
As for the Rooney Rule being a form of affirmative action, the rule does not state that a minority coach has to be hired, or that a certain amount of the head coaches in the NFL have to be minorities. It is simply saying that minorities have to be interviewed.
Occasionally somebody will use the argument that if the Rooney Rule is in existence, then there should be a rule that all teams should be forced to have a white running back.
That is as silly of a statement as there is. First of all, like it was just stated, the Rooney Rule does not state that a black coach has to be hired or that there has to be a certain amount of minority coaches. And trying out for a position is different than interviewing for a job.
A tryout, which white running backs are allowed to do on every level of football, is based on a side-by-side comparison of multiple athletes. Coaches can put them through game related drills and see which one is the best man for the job.
An interview is totally different. It is a qualified candidate giving a presentation to convince an employer that he is the right man for the job. There are no drills or tests to become a head coach. It is a totally different process.
White running backs have always been a part of the competition process, but black coaches have not always been a part of the process to hire head coaches.
In 2003, when the rule was created, there was a great need for it because of the low numbers of minority coaches, while many of them were passed over for white coaches. Is the rule still needed today? That is debatable. At some point the rule will not be needed because a decent amount of the league will have minority head coaches. But can the owners, who are all white, and the general managers, who are mostly white, be trusted to continue to give minority coaches a fair opportunity? Well, we have seen what the NFL is like without a rule like this. That would be nearly 70 years without a black head coach. So maybe it will be wise to keep this rule around a little while longer.
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