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NFL’s team leadership has minimal diversity among coaches after 20 years of the Rooney Rule efforts, expert says

An NFL logo on the field before a game between the Arizona Cardinals and the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium on Oct. 3, 2021, in Inglewood, California. (Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images/TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — When N. Jeremi Duru, a lawyer and expert in sports law, advocated for the Rooney Rule after it was implemented across the league, he described it as an “extremely controversial” time.

While serving as counsel for the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an organization comprised of coaches, scouts, and executives of color in the NFL, Duru and the rest of the group wanted more opportunities offered to minorities.

Some coaches, executives, and fans didn’t feel the same way, based on their responses.

“People viewed it as this extraordinarily radical idea,” said Duru, now a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law. “In my view, it’s quite a modest idea. ... It’s just an equal opportunity initiative to allow people to get in the door with an interview.”

Duru and Jim Rooney, son of Dan Rooney, spoke to a crowd that included faculty, student-athletes, business students at an event called “Rooney Rule Revisited” on Wednesday at the Temple Performing Arts Center. The two discussed the legacy of the rule and how it will continue to impact the present and future of sports.

The Rooney Rule was established in 2003 and originally required NFL teams to interview at least one minority for a head coach opening. The NFL named the rule after Dan Rooney, who was the league’s workplace diversity chairman and owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers at the time of the rule’s inception.

It’s been amended since. In 2009, it was expanded to include general managers and equivalent front-office roles and required at least two interviews of external minority candidates.

In 2021, the rule added that two minorities have to be interviewed externally for a head coaching role and one for a coordinator job as well as senior front-office personnel. In 2022, the rule expanded again to include women in the minority pool and added quarterback coach to the roles to which the rule applies.

Nearly 20 years later, how has the Rooney Rule improved diversity?

Currently in the NFL there are three Black head coaches of the league’s 32 teams. Last season, 25.3% of teams’ senior administration positions and 1.5% of team assistant coaches were women.

Part of the problem behind the rule is that teams’ owner, general manager and president wouldn’t conduct meaningful interviews, according to Duru.

“The numbers started to go down further and further,” Duru said. “Which brought us to the context in which Brian Flores brought a suit. ... Three days before his interview with the New York Giants, he got a text from Bill Belichick, saying ‘Hey Brian, congratulations. I heard you got the job,’ and he says, ‘I haven’t interviewed yet.’

“He was thinking of Brian Daboll, who had interviewed for the position.”

Flores, the former Miami Dolphins head coach, sued the NFL, the Dolphins, the New York Giants, and the Denver Broncos in February 2022, alleging discrimination and that his interviews were a sham meant solely to fulfill the Rooney Rule, among other complaints.

Despite the years of work to create equal opportunity in the NFL, Duru told the audience there’s more to be done.

“The rule came under substantial criticism and remains in criticism,” Duru said. “Indeed, the numbers of head coaches aren’t what they were. The number of head coaches of color, and, certainly, African American head coaches aren’t what they were at their highest point.”

In Jim’s book, "A Different Way to Win," he explained his father’s life’s work of trying to expand opportunities for people who were overlooked.

“He did not see broadening a candidate pool for coaches as necessitating a lowering of standards,” Jim wrote. “He believed they might do a better job than those who were being hired. ... It was, he believed, an outgrowth of the financial success so many owners had enjoyed — they no longer saw the need to go the extra mile.”

Pro Football Hall of Famer Tony Dungy was referenced by Duru and Rooney as someone who led to the creation of the rule.

Dungy, who was the first Black head coach to win a Super Bowl, was a defensive coordinator in the league for seven years. He landed a head coaching opportunity with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1996.

In 2001, the Bucs went 9-7 and Dungy was fired for not being able to get the Bucs to the Super Bowl, which Duru said was an unjust act.

In Duru’s book, "Advancing the Ball," Dungy spoke about his journey and the stereotypes he faced when being told what a coach should look like.

“George Young, the general manager of the New York Giants, told me that if I wanted to have a future in coaching I needed to shave my beard,” Dungy wrote in the foreword. “He felt I didn’t ‘look like a coach.’ ... He didn’t know it, but his words really laid out the problem the NFL had been facing for years.

“Even if I shaved, I [and the other African American assistant coaches] still wouldn’t fit the perception of what owners were looking for in their coaches.”

Duru and Rooney noted the importance of having different perspectives and representation in the NFL and said the Rooney Rule should go beyond sports.

“The conversation that we have to continue to have is how to ensure equal opportunity across the board,” Duru said. “That’s the conversation we have to have. I think the Rooney Rule is one arrow in the quiver worn that can be used to pursue that.”

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