The Rooney Rule: NFL’s Race Problem

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Bearing the most racist name in professional football, the Washington Redskins interviewed a defensive backfield coach, an African-American, before firing their current one and then hiring former Denver Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan, a white man. In terms of process, it wasn’t very nice of owner Dan Snyder to have his toadies fire head coach Jim Zorn around 4:00 in the morning when the team landed in Reagan National Airport from its final game loss in San Diego.
But the corporate transgression was not the ham-handed manner in which the Redskins finally got rid of the hapless Zorn. It was the team’s kabuki dance of interviewing a minority candidate for the head coaching position when they—and most sportswriters—already knew that Shanahan was the man Snyder wanted and pretty much had in the bag.

Why interview Jerry Gray when Redskins team owner had already committed to Shanahan? Because that’s how the Redskins could claim compliance with the NFL’s paltry affirmative action hiring program for head coaches.

Across the continent, the Seattle Seahawks mimicked the Redskins as they went through the motions of interviewing Leslie Frazier, an African-American serving as defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings, before announcing the hiring of USC’s Pete Carroll as the new head coach.

These are examples of NFL football teams making a mockery of the Rooney Rule” which requires NFL teams to do a legitimate interview of a minority candidate to fill vacant head coaching slots. With the Redskins and Seahawks, the Rooney Rule looks like a sham, a requirement to undergo, when all along they and everyone know they will likely hire a non-minority head coach like Shanahan or Carroll. For the Redskins, the Rooney Rule charade is sort of doubly embarrassing. The Redskins team name is for many a racial affront in and of itself. But going through the blandest of affirmative action hiring kabuki ought to have been embarrassing for the Redskins, as they were the last—yes, last—professional football team to integrate.

Token interviews of one—all it takes is one—minority candidate for head coaching jobs in order to comply with the Rooney Rule is exactly that, tokenism. This NFL policy of a wink and a nod to hiring African-Americans is reminiscent of the worst of affirmative action. Firms comply with the letter of affirmative action procedures, then proceed to hire non-minority staff (particularly executive staff) under the guise of their inability to find “qualified” minorities to hire.

Why is this a nonprofit issue? Remember that the National Football League is a tax exempt organization, a 501(c)(6) “business league.” The Fritz Pollard Association that certifies that NFL teams have complied with the Rooney Rule is also a tax exempt 501(c)(6) organization. Remember that the NFL’s unusual tax exempt nonprofit was a topic for Nonprofit Quarterly when it tried to get Congress to relieve it from having to file an IRS 990 that might disclose what it did with its typical $200 million annual budget, especially regarding salaries and compensation for its top and middle level but well paid executives.

With the nonprofit sector widely focused on increasing racial and ethnic diversity in its top ranks, the lack of minority head coaches within the tax exempt National Football League is an embarrassment. Of the 32 teams in the NFL in 2009, only six started the season with African-American head coaches. Since the Rooney Rule refers to “minority” candidates, not just African-American candidates, for interviews, it is worth noting that there were no Latino or Asian-American head coaches in the League in 2009. At the general manager level, there were no minorities at all.

Unlike the league, NFL teams themselves are for-profits, not nonprofits. As bad as they are regarding minorities as head coaches, they stack up better in terms of hiring minorities for leadership positions than the public and nonprofit universities that comprise the colleges that compete as NCAA division I-A collegiate football. According to the NCAA, data indicate only thirteen people of color—eleven African-American coaches, one Latino, and one Pacific Islander—serving as head coaches among the 120 division I-A teams and only one African-American coach among the 64 colleges that automatically qualify for the Bowl Championship Series (BCS).

Why does professional football do so poorly in racial diversity at its top levels when the workers—the players—are so predominantly minority? According to the 2009 Race and Gender Report Card on the NFL prepared by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, African-Americans comprised 67 percent of the NFL players, whites 31 percent, Asian-Americans two percent, and Latinos one percent in 2008. In addition to the six head coaches, the Report Card identified only five minority general managers in the NFL, and no person of color with majority ownership of an NFL team—now or ever.

Some observers suggest that the NFL deserves good grades for having used the Rooney Rule to boost the number of African-American head coaches from 2 in 1999 to 6 now. But Jerry Gray has to have known that he was not in any way at all a competitive candidate for the Redskins, as reports were already consistent that owner Dan Snyder had his heart set on Shanahan. The same goes for the kabuki interview of Minnesota assistant coach Leslie Frazier for the Seahawks. The defense of the Rule is that those interviews elevate the profiles of unknown African-American coaches like Gray and Frazier so that in the future, they might be noticed and treated more seriously.

But the Fritz Pollard Alliance’s president, John Wooten, spoke with Gray and informed the NFL that it considered Dan Snyder and his Redskin colleagues “earnest” in its interview with Gray, despite Snyder’s well known courtship of Shanahan.

Come again? Earnest? Whether or not the Rooney Rule is working, most observers think that the Redskins and Seahawks made only half-hearted efforts at compliance. If all it takes is going through the motions to comply with the Rooney rule, scheduling a half-hearted interview for a job that is all but filled by a non-minority, then why bother to have a Rooney Rule and look for the Fritz Pollard Alliance to give the sham process cover? Wouldn’t the public scrutiny of the press raising embarrassing questions about the tone-deaf recruitment practices of the Redskins ownership accomplish just as much as the Rooney Rule, without having someone from the Fritz Pollard association provide a get-out-of-jail-free card? AP’s Jim Litke called this process a “charade.”

The Rooney Rule does get a defense, albeit tepid, from some quarters. “Certainly there have been some ‘token’ interviews and there’s always going to be organizations that circumvent the rule, for whatever reason,” Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports. “But overall, no one disputes its contributed significantly to the diversity we’re seeing today. It took a long time and the threat of a lawsuit to convince the NFL that everybody benefits from ensuring the (hiring) process is open. All the Rooney Rule was supposed to do was get people into the room who otherwise might never have had a shot.”

The Rooney Rule is named after Dan Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and son of team founder, Art Rooney. That team put its (and the owner’s) money where the owner’s (or owner’s family’s) mouth was when it hired Mike Tomlin in 2007 over some equally well qualified non-minority candidates. The Steelers didn’t do too badly with the Tomlin hiring; the next year, the Steelers won the Super Bowl.

But the rare minority head coach in the NFL who benefited from the Rooney Rule might be small consolation to Redskins secondary coach Gray, whose “job interview” took place even before the team had formally axed head coach Jim Zorn; or to Vikings defensive coordinator Frazier, whose “Rooney” interview with the Seahawks was immediately followed by Carroll’s hiring. But it was fine with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who declared, “I can’t give all the details, but they’re in compliance.” Goodell was the NFL’s general counsel when the league adopted the Rooney Rule in 2003, so maybe in his view, this is how it is supposed to operate.

Former player and Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy doesn’t agree and took the NFL to task for this charade: “That is not what the Rooney Rule is supposed to be . . . you make up your mind and then interview a candidate for it, anyway, just to satisfy the rule.” The head of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, John Wooten, declared that the two interviews “had been done the right way.” What could possibly have been the “right way” about these interviews when it was well known that the Redskins and Seahawks knew exactly who they wanted to hire—and it was not Gray or Frazier, not one iota. In both cases, the elements of the deals with Shanahan and Carroll were all but inked (reportedly, the Carroll deal with the Seahawks had already progressed to the contract stage before the Frazier interview), making the Rooney Rule interviews comparable to after-the-fact pro forma reference checks for new hires already ensconced in their offices.

But it is possible that, at the outset, the Rooney Rule was supposed to have more teeth. In 2003, when the Rule was new, the NFL reprimanded and fined the pathetic Detroit Lions for hiring a non-minority candidate and “violating the spirit” of the Rooney Rule, because the Lions knew who they were going to hire (a white man) before the went through the pro forma minority interview. Explain the difference between the Lions in 2003 and the Redskins and Seahawks in 2010. According to a columnist for CBS Sports, the answer is obvious: “The Redskins and Seahawks have violated the spirit, the intent and maybe even the execution of the Rooney Rule”. The only difference between the Lions’ violation and the Redskins’ and Seahawks’ compliance is the passage of years, transforming a violation in 2003 into “the right way” in 2010.

None of this should be taken as criticism of Gray and Frazier for participating in these shams. Even with sham interviews like these, pedestrian compliance with the Rooney Rule gives unknown assistant coaches like these two men increased national visibility, which could result in their being more seriously considered for future jobs in the league. But it must be uncomfortable being a knowing part of a charade. Gray was obviously embarrassed by the interview, though perhaps also because he was interviewing for his boss’s job while his boss, Zorn, was still the head coach, and made a lot of neither-confirm-nor-deny statements about whether he actually had had an interview, when the more appropriate strategy would have been to keep his mouth shut and give reporters a simple “no comment.” Reportedly, at least one other African-American assistant coach in the league declined an interview with the Seahawks realizing that the Seahawks were going through the motions to get somebody, anybody of colorto stand for a Rooney-cleansing interview. But had Gray or Frazier called out the Redskins and Seahawks for their affirmative action pretense, they might have risked their chance at ever getting a head coaching job.

Should the nonprofit sector—mostly 501(c)(3) public charities as opposed to the much smaller number of 501(c)(6) business leagues—care about this gossamer-thin charade and, moreover, should the nonprofit sector do something? Or is the tax exempt NFL (comprised of hardly tax exempt, tycoon-owned teams—except for the nonprofit community-owned Green Bay Packers) not to be taken seriously, functioning as a combination of weekend sports combat spiced with entertaining personalities such as Chad Ochocinco of the Cincinnati Bengals or Terrell Owens most recently of the Buffalo Bills?

You bet it’s the nonprofit sector’s role, and here’s what the sector might say and do:

  1. Any time a tax exempt organization makes a mockery of racial justice the way the NFL is misapplying the Rooney Rule, it is incumbent on the nonprofit sector’s leadership institutions—especially those whose constituencies are predominantly big-time, wealthy nonprofits—to call out the miscreants. The nonprofit sector itself is hardly a paragon of affirmative action leadership at the executive director and board levels, with foundations for example demonstrating less diversity than Fortune 500 corporations in the racial diversity of their top ranks. But some parts of the nonprofit sector have been actively promoting greater “diversity” in nonprofit sector staff and board composition, and in some cases edging toward something closer to racial justice. When moneyed parts of the tax exempt community like the NFL make a mockery of this, the nonprofit sector has a right and perhaps an obligation to speak out about its miscreant family members.
  2. Among the big money players in the nonprofit sector, foundations have been challenged on the issue of race in the form of legislation introduced in California that would have required them to publicly disclose the racial and ethnic breakouts of their leadership, staff, and grant recipients. The foundations struggled mightily to squash (successfully) the California initiative, declaring it the potential death knell of institutional philanthropy. Nonetheless, the Council of Foundations pronounced race and ethnicity among foundations as the top issue facing the sector. Maybe it was only the top issue for a millisecond or two, but that’s what the COF’s top leadership pronounced at the time, propping up programs such as the Diversity in Philanthropy Project to carry forth the sector’s purported commitment to changing the racial make-up of the foundation sector.
    Is the sham implementation of the Rooney Rule an issue for institutional philanthropy and philanthropy’s national trade associations to speak out? Of course it is. For one reason, most of the teams themselves operate grantmaking charities or foundations (not to mention the wealthy team owners’ personal or family foundations). For example, owner Dan Snyder has the Washington Redskins Charitable Foundation, across the nation there is the Seattle Seahawks Charitable Foundation, and in the backyard of the Nonprofit Quarterly, there is the New England Patriots Charitable Foundation. While no one would describe the grantmaking of these largely self-promotional charities as inspired philanthropy, they are grantmakers operating under the name “foundation” and therefore should qualify for COF attention.
    But there is a more direct connection for the Council of Foundations to comment and criticize. The league’s own foundation, NFL Charities, is (or at least has been) a long-time member of the Council on Foundations (as evidenced by the membership lists on COF’s annual reports). The Council actually promotes sports philanthropy in the guise of foundations established by athletes and teams. On the CoF website, for example, is a flier for a COF “Advanced Practice Institute” on “Harnessing the Power of Sports for Change: Sports Philanthropy in Social Marketing.” The presenter and sponsor of the program (part of COF’s Sports Philanthropy Track at the 2008 annual conference) was the Jacksonville Jaguars Foundation, one of the family of professional football-related charities and also a COF member (see the 2007 CoF annual report [PDF]).
    How can the Council turn a blind eye or deaf ear to the behavior of one its 501(c)(6) members’ corporate sponsors? In this case, the Council with its vaunted commitment to diversity would be accepting the NFL’s contention that legitimate affirmative action recruitment (per the Rooney Rule) can occur even if the interview occurs for a head coaching job that isn’t formally open (as in Washington, when Zorn was still nominally the head coach) or for a job which by most accounts was already filled (as in Seattle).
  3. Most of the foundations created by the football teams are relatively penny ante operations in the big scheme of the nonprofit sector. Even the Jaguars Foundation, well known in Jacksonville nonprofit circles for trying to function like a legitimate charity rather than a marketing arm of the team, is known for its program initiatives such as its “Jaguars Don’t Smoke” anti-smoking initiative, involving the installation of stop-smoking signage at Alltel Stadium and a ticket-incentive program for youth who pledge to meet specific personal, academic, and behavioral goals—including no smoking—in return for tickets to Jaguar games.

But NFL Charities, the 501(c)(3) charitable giving arm of the NFL, is not quite so small, with $8 million in grants in 2008. Notwithstanding a $1 million grant to the American Red Cross in 2005 for Katrina-related relief, NFL Charities typically gives relatively small and medium-sized grants to the charities of some players and coaches[i] and multiple grants to the foundations of the teams (and sometimes the family foundations of the owners). But some of the organization’s grants that year went to regular charities that ought to be concerned about a funder whose corporate sponsors make a mockery of affirmative action hiring requirements: the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the Paley Center for Media, the New York Urban League, Associated Black Charities (New York), the Hawaii Primary Care Association, the United Way of Greater Cincinnati, the Boys and Girls Club of America—and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. These and other grant recipients are better positioned than most of us to tell their NFL Charities program officers about their unhappiness with the NFL’s sham implementation of the Rooney Rule.

Given that the Redskins and Seahawks appear to have faked their way into Rooney Rule compliance, the shame is not only on the two teams and on the NFL for this phony process, but on the Fritz Pollard Alliance through its president, John Wooten, for saying that the interviews of Gray and Frazier were legitimate, as though either team had given those capable men a scintilla of serious consideration. As columnist John Feinstein asked in response to Wooten’s declaration that the teams had complied with the Rule,” Really? Did Wooten also try to stay awake on Christmas Eve so he could meet Santa when he came down the chimney?” Watch closely, but you’ll see the NFL emulate what the Council did in the wake of its diversity challenge in California: word is that the NFL is now going to hire for a newly created position, chief diversity officer.

Let us hope that the National Football League comes to its senses and redresses the Rooney Rule, lest the legitimate aims and methods behind the creation of the Rule in 2002-2003 turn into a joke about how to sidestep and scuttle efforts to increase the numbers of people of color head coaches in the league.

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