by Glenn Nelson
I’ve long believed that “Rooney” and “rule,” when combined, are two of the most insidious words in the English language. This Sunday’s Super Bowl reminds me of the most diabolical form of this linkage.
The Rooney Rule is a National Football League (NFL) initiative to diversify its head coaching and team executive ranks. Launched in 2003, the rule initially mandated that NFL teams interview at least one Person of Color for its senior openings. It now calls for teams to interview two outside candidates of color for head coaching positions.
If you are BIPOC, you instantly recognize such a directive as cynical, performative, and disingenuous. It will not surprise you that, in a league in which more than 70% of players are Black, before this week, only one head coach was Black. Lovie Smith became the second Black head coach after the Houston Texans hired him on Monday to replace David Culley, who also is Black. Another, Mike McDaniel, who replaced Brian Flores in Miami on Sunday, is biracial.
The timing of this latest round of racial musical chairs is interesting. Just last week, Flores filed a class-action lawsuit against the NFL, charging that he was subject to sham interviews by the Denver Broncos and New York Giants for no other reason than compliance with the Rooney Rule. He also alleged that Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross attempted to incentivize him to purposely lose games and pressured him to violate league tampering rules by recruiting a “prominent quarterback.”
It didn’t take Flores’ class-action lawsuit against the NFL to unpeel the unquenchable hypocrisy of a club of rich white men. This is a country where Black men continue to be gunned down in the streets by police, even after George Floyd and with the whole world watching. It therefore cannot be surprising that one of those rich white men, Stephen Ross, was brazen enough to fire Flores after consecutive winning seasons.
Either Ross or part of his cleanup crew then unleashed upon the dog-whisper network that Flores was “difficult” to work with, something I’ve heard repeated by reporters and commentators way out here in Seattle.
And still … the Rooney Rule has been widely heralded outside of the sports world as both inspired and inspirational. Where race is concerned, white America is eager to conflate expectation and hype with accomplishment. But it’s really just the same-old, same-old in the sheep’s clothing of diversity.
Which is why the Rooney Rule isn’t just a football problem, it’s a stain on American society.
Even if Friday afternoon Zoom calls brimming with Seahawk gear-wearing colleagues is the closest you get to following professional sports, chances are that you have been touched in some way by the Rooney Rule. Dozens of U.S. corporations, from Hilton to Ross to major banks, employ Rooney for CEO and board of director searches. At least four Seattle-based behemoths — Amazon, Costco, Expedia, and Microsoft — have instituted some form of the rule.
Amazon leadership initially resisted the requirement as micromanagement when it was proposed by shareholders. In 2018, when Amazon agreed to “consider” women and “minorities” [sic] as directors, its board was completely white; today, two of 11 directors are Women of Color. Then again, even by its own figures, Amazon’s workforce is nearly as nonwhite as the NFL player ranks, rendering claims of progress as illusory.
“Consider,” by the way, is something your financially strapped parents tell you when you ask for a post-graduation trip to somewhere exotic.
The Rooney Rule is a Black Lives Matter sign in the front yard of a white family’s house. It is the empty promise of U.S. history writ large: words without action, like so many tribal treaties, voting and other rights acts, and “I stand with” stickers. White corporate and nonprofit America loves to grind away on words. Mission statements. Diversity oaths. Land acknowledgements. And just like a land acknowledgement never ends with “and we’re giving it all back,” the Rooney Rule says nothing about actually hiring a BIPOC candidate.
I don’t doubt that many white people embark on these word-crafting endeavors with the best of intentions. But best intentions don’t equal change.
It also can be argued that the Rooney Rule isn’t just an empty gesture, it’s actually deleterious to those it purports to promote. A seminal Harvard Business Review study found that a lone female or BIPOC among a group of four job candidates had about zero chance of being hired. The singularity stands out enough to be viewed as an outlier instead of an equal competitor. On the other hand, increasing the number of female or BIPOC candidates to two jumps the chances of being hired to 50%, the study found, while three increased the likelihood to 67%.
The Harvard group found similar ratios in NFL hiring, but we’ve seen it play out in living color. One of the architects of Kansas City’s innovative and explosive offense, Eric Bieniemy, has been hailed as the Next Best Head NFL Coach for years. After the New Orleans Saints moved on from him this week, Bieniemy had been “considered” some 15 times. They could rename Passover for him.
Bieniemy makes Flores’ suit but isn’t part of it, because, like so many cornerbacks who evaded violent collisions with Marshawn Lynch, he has made a business decision. The BIPOC price for just a sliver of hope in the NFL, sadly, is silence. Not enough time has passed to have forgotten a young man named Colin Kaepernick, a Black, one-time Super Bowl quarterback who knelt his way to an obvious blackball.
There is no “Rogers Rate” in a league that abides a white quarterback in Green Bay who lied about receiving COVID-19 shots, ignored protocols, and publicly espouses nonsensical, non-scientific conspiracy theories about vaccinations. Not to mention that Aaron Rogers talks constant smack about his employers.
Flores overcame great odds only to put himself in position to become a casualty of the system he has decided to fight. There were nine NFL head coaching vacancies when Flores was hired by the Dolphins; he was the only Black hire. His firing left the league’s only Black head coach as Mike Tomlin, who was hired by Dan Rooney, the late Pittsburgh Steelers owner for whom the rule is named but who insisted the rule did not produce Tomlin’s hiring because the Steelers had already interviewed Ron Rivera, a Latino coach now in charge of the Washington team with the previously racist name.
Simply reciting the serpentine ironies leaves you breathless.
Just 40, Flores is slingshotting peas at the NFL shield. His suit is not even a Hail Mary. It’s tantamount to professional suicide, and he knows it.
“In making the decision to file the class-action complaint, I understand that I may be risking coaching the game I love and has done so much for my family and me,” Flores said in a statement. “My sincere hope is that by standing up against systemic racism in the NFL, others will join me to ensure that positive change is made for generations to come.”
If substantiated, Flores’ claim that he was offered bonuses to intentionally lose games could bring the house down on Stephen Ross. It would be a major victory if, for some reason, the Flores legal team acquired in discovery all the internal Washington Commanders emails, from which Jon Gruden’s racial trope was leaked.
The NFL will take action when it believes its integrity is at stake; however, its stances on race matters don’t seem to enter into the integrity equation. Flores’ allegations that he was subject to sham interviews by Denver and New York seem feasible enough, but it’s fantasy to expect the NFL to do more than squirm in short-term discomfort.
That is, until the league parades out Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige, and Dr. Dre at halftime of the Super Bowl this Sunday.
Otherwise, the NFL is going to suffer the same punishment that any corporate executive, bureaucratic head, nonprofit director, media outlet, film producer, or the like suffers when their words about diversity and inclusion are not their bond. Any rule that isn’t backed by consequences isn’t really a rule. It’s just a suggestion.
Besides, any entity that needs to invoke anything like a Rooney Rule lies in a state beyond which such an action, even if it wielded some teeth, can even begin to address.
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Glenn Nelson, a contributing columnist, is a Japanese American journalist and lifetime South Seattle resident who founded The Trail Posse and has won numerous national and regional awards for his writings about race. Follow him @TrailPosse on Twitter or @TheTrailPosse on Instagram.
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