Is the Rooney Rule Working? NFL Criticized for Lack of Minority Hires

A familiar issue reared its head during the annual coaching carousel that has taken center stage in the NFL over the last few weeks.

The so-called "Rooney Rule" has again been thrust into the spotlight, due to the lack of minority candidates interviewed for the head coach role by teams needing to fill vacancies.

Established in 2003, the rule mandates franchises must interview at least one minority candidate for their head coach vacancy.

It did not take long for the Rooney Rule to make its impact felt. Following its implementation, the percentage of head coaches from a minority background rose to as high as 22 percent, compared to six percent before the rule was introduced.

The effect, however, has vanished almost as swiftly. Of the 31 NFL teams currently with a head coach—the Cleveland Browns are yet to replace Freddie Kitchens—only four have a minority head coach—the Pittsburgh Steelers, Miami Dolphins, Los Angeles Chargers and the Washington Redskins.

The latter hired Ron Rivera less than a month after he was fired by the Carolina Panthers, making him the only minority coach hired in the current coaching carousel.

The Dallas Cowboys appointed former Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, while the Panthers hired former Baylor coach Matt Rhule and the New York Giants replaced Pat Shurmur with New England Patriots special team and wide receivers coach Joe Judge.

Rivera is also only the third minority coach hired over the last three years, along with Flores and Steve Wilks, who spent a solitary season in charge of the Arizona Cardinals last year.

To put the figure into context, there have been 18 coaching changes in the NFL since the end of the 2017 season.

"The owners still look a certain way, they still come from a very old background, so it's going to be this way until things change," San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman was quoted as saying by The Mercury News this week.

"No matter how much people say about it, oh, 'Rooney Rule, you've got to interview these guys,' the coaches will still look a certain way for the most part."

Sherman is part of a 49ers defense that has developed into one of the best in the league under coordinator Robert Saleh.

The 40-year-old is of Arab-American background and one of the two minority candidates the Browns have interviewed for their head coach vacancy, along with Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy.

The latter is probably the most high-profile and perplexing snub of recent head coaching carousels. Bieniemy is regularly touted as a potential head coach after playing a crucial role in developing one of the most exciting offenses in the NFL in over the last two seasons.

Saleh and Bieniemy may still land the job in Cleveland, but face competition from Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman and his Buffalo Bills counterpart Brian Daboll.

Two more offensive coordinators will speak to Cleveland, with Minnesota's Kevin Stefanski and New England's Josh McDaniels set to meet with the franchise.

The Patriots have already lost a member of their coaching staff, with Judge moving to New Jersey to take charge of the Giants.

According to The Athletic, the former Patriots special team and wide receivers coach was the candidate with the least name recognition of the six who interviewed for the vacancy.

While Judge's appointment was only formally announced on Wednesday, the Giants' decision to opt for a relatively obscure candidate again fueled the debate surrounding the Rooney Rule.

"The National Football League, or somebody else, we got to change this Rooney Rule," ESPN's analyst Stephen A. Smith said on First Take on Tuesday.

"It's bogus, clearly because it's being bypassed. [...] This don't happen for black folk. A wide receiver coach that becomes the head coach."

I don’t want to hear a damn thing else about the Rooney Rule. Not after this hire by the NY Giants

— Stephen A Smith (@stephenasmith) January 7, 2020

Along with Flores in Miami, the Steelers' Mike Tomlin and Anthony Lynn of the Charges are the only black head coaches in the NFL, the same number as when the Rooney Rule was implemented.

Four African-American head coaches lost their jobs a year ago. Wilks' spell in Arizona came to an end after just one season, while the New York Jets fired Todd Bowles, the Cincinnati Bengals let go of Marvin Lewis and the Denver Broncos parted ways with Vance Joseph.

The Jets turned to Adam Gase, who had come off two losing seasons in Miami, while the Bengals made Los Angeles Rams quarterback coach Zac Taylor the youngest head coach in the NFL and the Broncos appointed former Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.

The Cardinals replaced Wilks with Kliff Kingsbury, who had no previous NFL experience and had gone 35-40 over five seasons at Texas Tech.

Following a 3-13 season under Wilks, Arizona went 5-10-1 this year.

The NFL remains an overwhelmingly black sport—around 70 percent of players were African American, according to data released last year—but minority coaches continue to find opportunities hard to come by.

"NFL has finally shown it's not the place for black men to advance," Jim Trotter of NFL Media quoted an unnamed black assistant coach as saying earlier this week.

"It's ridiculous, it's disgusting. We can sell tickets and make plays, but we can't lead."

Mike Tomlin, Brian Flores
Mike Tomlin, head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, is congratulated by Brian Flores, head coach of the Miami Dolphins, after Pittsburgh's 27-14 win at Heinz Field on October 28, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The duo are two of just three African-American head coaches in the NFL. Joe Sargent/Getty