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The Rooney Rule (still) isn’t working

The Rams opted to not bring back Wade Phillips despite Los Angeles' defense ranking among the best in the NFL.

To say that the Rooney Rule isn’t working is to presume that it ever did. It never truly did, at least not in the way it was intended.

Ideally, the rule requiring at least one minority candidate to be interviewed for every head-coaching vacancy will prompt owners to engage in a deliberate, patient, inclusive search, one that doesn’t have the destination selected before the journey begins. That’s not how it worked in the decades before the rule was created, and that’s definitely not how it has worked in the 18 years since the rule was put in place.

The Rooney Rule was never about forcing an owner to hire a minority candidate. It was about requiring owners to give fair consideration to a diverse set of qualified candidates before picking the next coach. But even though the league can mandate at least one interview of a minority candidate, the league can never force owners to not make decisions about the coaches they want to hire.

And so the practical value of the rule comes only from the fact that requiring interviews of at least one minority candidate per vacancy places into the media pipeline names that otherwise wouldn’t be mentioned, and gives minority candidates opportunities to get experience with the interview process. There’s value in that, although less value when (for example) the Cowboys choose to interview not an up-and-coming assistant but Marvin Lewis, who needs no boost in name recognition or job-interview experience.

Regardless of its intended purpose, the Rooney Rule has become an exercise in checking a box. If that’s what it’s going to be, the requirement should be that the candidate interviewed will truly benefit from the box-checking: No NFL head-coaching experience, for example. An age or years-of-experience limit, possibly.

But it still should be something more. In a very brave move given the entity that signs his paycheck, Jim Trotter of NFL Media shared via social media this observation, via an unnamed black assistant coach: “NFL has finally shown it’s not the place for black men to advance. It’s ridiculous, it’s disgusting. We can sell tickets and make plays, but we can’t lead.”

Trotter calls the problem not a league issue but an ownership issue. But there’s no difference; the owners are the league. And the league adopted the Rooney Rule via vote of the owners.

Instead of using the threat of litigation to squeeze the league into adopting the Rooney Rule, maybe Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri should have persuaded someone to file a lawsuit alleging discrimination on the basis of race. Sometimes, that’s the only way to truly alter behavior and, more importantly, attitudes.

But that will never happen, because coaches simply want to coach. Whoever takes that stand will never coach again, at least not in the NFL.