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On the Rooney Rule, NFL considers swapping punishment for reward

Tony Dungy joins Mike Florio to talk about how the NFL can evolve the Rooney Rule to help minority candidates get head coaching opportunities.

When it comes to compliance with the Rooney Rule, the NFL has all but ruled out using a stick. So it may try a carrot instead.

By devising a proposed system that would reward teams for creating opportunities for minority coaching candidates via enhanced draft standing, the league is essentially admitting that its unwillingness to punish those who make a mockery of the letter and/or spirit of the Rooney Rule requires an approach based on creating an incentive for making personnel moves with race in mind. This proposed expansion of the Rooney Rules represents a major break from the standard that requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for a vacant job; the new approach, if adopted, actually gives teams a tangible benefit for hiring a minority candidate.

On one hand, this is what it has come to for the NFL. The owners individually, and thus collectively, often decide on the next coach or G.M. before the hiring cycle even commences. In most cases, the pre-ordained choice is a non-minority, making it difficult if not impossible for a viable minority candidate to have a fair chance at getting the job. If the owners simply aren’t going to walk the talk and if the league is going to look the other way when, for example, the Texans fire a white G.M. with the goal of hiring another white G.M. and give perfunctory interviews to a pair of non-white G.M. candidates to comply with the letter of the Rooney Rule before hiring no G.M. at all because they couldn’t get the white G.M. they wanted, the situation won’t change.

On the other hand, the proposal encourages owners to make decisions based on a legally protected characteristic. Race should never be an issue in a hiring decision, whatever the race of the person being hired. Although the litigation risk is low (no coach will trade his career in a 32-company industry for the right to sue), it’s wrong (and illegal) to make hiring decisions based in whole or in part on the race of the applicants. And yet the league’s proposed expansion of the Rooney Rule expressly encourages it.

The league’s lawyers are smart enough to spot these issues and to understand the risks, but the chronic failure of the Rooney Rule to naturally improve opportunities for minority coaches likely has caused them to choose the lesser of multiple evils. Again, if the league office isn’t willing to take action against those who treat the Rooney Rule as an exercise in checking a box, the only way to make things better is to create an artificial benefit for doing something more than merely talking to a minority candidate.

Making the proposal more problematic is the fact that the artificial benefit comes at the expense of other franchises, penalizing stability by giving teams in turmoil a license to leapfrog stable organizations that don’t fire their coaches every two or three or four years. Put simply, teams that have a revolving door at the front of the facility will now have a way to cut the line as to teams that don’t.

There’s got to be a better way, a more fair and equitable way, to secure meaningful compliance with the Rooney Rule and to enhance minority hiring without giving teams a reward for making a hire based on race. The current proposal trivializes the issue, and it’s sure to have unintended consequences.

The mere fact that the league is considering such a strange approach reflects its frustration with the inability to coax more diverse hiring practices from its owners. Without a realistic threat of civil liability, the owners simply won’t do what they should do without giving them some external reason to do it.

In many ways, the mere consideration of an external incentive to lure owners to do something that they should be doing anyway becomes even more of an indictment of the situation than a jury verdict.