History has a wonderful way of righting its wrongs. A person in South Africa no longer lives with the oppression of apartheid, Americans have a black president and sports can no longer be compared to slavery as it has often been suggested. Never before have the atrocities of man been more transparent than with the advent of the 24-hour news cycle.
“There have been comparable times in history when sports have been at the center of culture and seemed to dominate the landscape,” Roone Arledge, the former president of ABC News and the man who brought us Monday Night Football, once said to Sports Illustrated. “Whether in Greek society or in what used to be called the Golden Age of Sports…everything is magnified by television.”
As the turn of the century approached, ESPN became a monopoly, the internet came into our homes with blinding speed and before you knew it, a new star beyond Hollywood had been created — the American athlete. The salaries of athletes escalated beyond ones imagination and so did the profile of the men who coached them. Instantly, coaches were the face of a franchise. Bill Parcells and Mike Ditka quickly come to mind.
But there was one problem. You had teams dominated by people of color, being coached by white men. And in a country where image is everything and the talk of race is still a touchy subject, like religion and politics, this was not a good look, particularly for the NFL, where 70 percent of the players are black.
The NFL has been around for 90 years now and there have been, get this, a mere 10 black head coaches. The 10th, Mike Singletary, was recently fired in San Francisco, which has us again talking about the Rooney Rule, which requires that NFL teams interview at least one minority coaching candidate before making a new hire.
Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue was hopeful that by expanding the search, owners would come across qualified candidates who might have been overlooked otherwise. This is sad, because NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, is quick to hand out fines and suspend players for things as silly as end zone celebrations, yet he’s awfully quiet when it comes to a subject matter as groundbreaking and sensitive as the Rooney Rule.
Only five blacks had previously coached in the NFL, beginning with Art Shell in 1989, and only two held the position when the rule was adopted in 2003. The following year there were five, and between six and seven every year since, including two of the last three Super Bowl winners. These numbers have people questioning whether the rule has outlived its usefulness.
“I would hope we’re at the point where the Rooney Rule is not necessary,” said Tony Dungy, former head coach of the Indianapolis Colts and current NBC analyst, to Sports Illustrated. “But even if we are, there’s still some good things, some benefits that come from it. The biggest thing it has done, to me, is slow down the process and encouraged people to look at a broad spectrum and interview a lot of different guys. That helps everyone. It helps the person who ended up getting the job, and it helps the person who was looking.”
Dungy acknowledged that there always will be franchises that side-step the rule or ignore it all together: “It’s hard to legislate (the) practice.”
Owners pay hundreds of millions of dollars for teams, tens of millions for players and nearly every one would hire me or you, if they thought it would make their franchises successful.
“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 at the University of Central Florida, said to the Associated Press. “But overall, no one disputes it’s 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.”
So here we are. Are NFL teams making a mockery of the rule? Is the Rooney Rule still relevant? Do the owners believe in it? Are they circumventing rules by bringing in token candidates? Will the NFL ever catch up with its NBA counterpart? Unfortunately, these questions have yet to be answered.
Presently there are five (Oakland, Denver, Cleveland, Carolina and San Francisco) head coaching jobs available in the NFL. It looks like Tony Sparano will be retained in Miami. My guess is that you might be lucky to see one African-American hired to fill one of those jobs. Leslie Frazier in Minnesota doesn’t count, he was already in place.
And of course Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys and arguably the biggest con man in sports, pacified us by interviewing two minority candidates, Ray Sherman, the Cowboys wide receivers coach and Todd Bowles, assistant head coach and secondary coach in Miami, when it had been rumored for weeks, if not for years, that Jason Garrett would be the next head coach of the Cowboys.
After the Super Bowl, this too shall pass. Another year will go by, and next year coaches will be fired and we’ll start this debate all over again. Yes, we have come a long way as a society, but as we deal with the problems that people of color face in America; unemployment, housing, incarceration and education are just a few, the NFL still has a ways to go when dealing with its hiring practices. After all, you know who you want to hire, before you hire them. Just tell us the truth and maybe we can move on.