With the Super Bowl in Los Angeles and the NFL completing another season, the league’s sorry record in terms of diversity and inclusion has been discussed at length. Former Miami head coach Brian Flores’ lawsuit put the issue squarely in the public discussion, and many feel it helped the coaches hired by Miami and Houston get their jobs. But there’s widespread agreement that things have reached the point where the current Rooney Rule mandating that at least one minority be interviewed for any coaching or managerial position has proven woefully ineffective.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell went public on the issue last week and said he bears personal responsibility for the league’s shortcomings in hiring minority head coaches. “Yes, I do bear that responsibility, as well as all our clubs,’’ said Goodell, who is in his 16th season as the league’s commissioner during his annual Super Bowl news conference. Goodell said the league will review its policies on diversity and inclusion and would consider an complete overhaul. But he offered no specifics and said as of now he has no solution.
“You don’t take anything off the table,’’ he said. “So if it requires an overall, you do it. If it requires changes in other areas, you do it. Obviously we haven’t been successful to date, so we’ve got to look at every one of those alternatives.’’
After all the coaching openings were filled, there are now five minority NFL head coaches. Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Lovie Smith, recently hired by the Houston Texans, are Black, and Mike McDaniel, recently hired by the Miami Dolphins, is multiracial. The Washington Commanders’ Ron Rivera is the only Latino head coach in the NFL, and the New York Jets’ Robert Saleh is Arab American. Of that quintet, Tomlin’s job is the most secure.
Interestingly, Rivera was quoted last week revealing his misgivings with the Rooney Rule. He told Sports Illustrated.com that he once refused to do an interview that he felt was only a pro forma situation. “I won’t say which team, but it was early in the process and the Rooney Rule really had just started,” Rivera said, from a quick vacation in his native California. “And so when it came time to interview, what a lot of people said was this particular coach was getting the job anyways. And I was asked to interview late in the process, and one thing that we noted was that they hadn’t interviewed a minority yet.”
There are also lots of questions being raised about the Smith hiring, mainly because he was not one of the three men that the Texans had initially proclaimed were finalists for the job. Flores was, and he had two interviews with the Texans. His attorneys maintain he wasn’t hired due to the lawsuit, something the Texans deny.
CBS Sports.com points out Smith isn’t very different from the guy they fired after only one year, David Culley. With a team in transition (at best), hiring a 64-year-old former head of a defense that ranked at or near the bottom of the league in points and yards allowed seemed odd. Smith definitely had a strong record in the front part of his career, winning NFL Coach of the Year in 2007 and leading the Bears to a Super Bowl. But since 2012 his teams, both pro and college, have been 43-77. The feeling in several circles is that the Texans are setting Smith up to get canned quickly, just like Culley.
The bottom line on the issue remains a commissioner, no matter how well intentioned, cannot force the owner or management of a team to hire people they don’t feel qualified. Tony Dungy said on The Dan Patrick Show that the same comments being floated regarding Eric Bieniemy (“doesn’t interview well”) were said about him back in the 90s before he finally landed the Tampa Bay Bucs job in 1996. It took 16 years before he got a head job.
Sadly, decades later, the same rhetoric and pattern of exclusion continues.