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Report: The NFL is considering adding teeth to the Rooney Rule

A summary of the report and some editorial commentary

NFL Combine - Day 2 Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

One thing that happened eighteen months ago when I started searching through Tweets every day to paste some of them at the bottom of the daily Twitter article here on Hogs Haven is that I began to have some familiarity with different media members, and to see what characterized their tweets. Some aim to be clever or funny; some informative; some highly interactive. I also began to get a sense of what issues are important to different people. Some will focus on play analysis, others on salary cap, others on rule changes.

Jim Trotter is one of a handful of people who takes every opportunity to discuss the lack of minority representation among NFL head coaches, GMs and other top-level positions.

This week, Trotter wrote an article in which he reports that the NFL owners will, at their virtual meeting on Tuesday, consider and possibly vote on a series of proposals to strengthen the Rooney Rule, which is designed to “level the playing field” for minority candidates in the hiring process. While it is not a sure thing by any means that all (or any) of the proposed changes will be adopted, the package that Jim Trotter says will be on the table would go far beyond creating a “level” playing field, and would seek to actually tilt the field in favor of minority candidates in an effort to redress decades of imbalance.

The package of measures is broken up into four categories of initiatives.

Category One

The first category, according to Trotter, is removal of existing barriers to coordinator positions. Specifically, Trotter reports that the initiative would remove the longstanding anti-tampering barrier that permits clubs to block assistant coaches from interviewing for coordinator positions with other clubs. The goal would be to make it easier for minority coaches to rise to coordinator positions, which typically represent the final “audition” level in the coaching hierarchy before jumping into the head coaching ranks. Significantly, if I read Trotter’s report correctly, this measure would not be restricted to minority assistant coaches, but would apply across-the-board, which would open up career opportunities for position coaches across the league.

Category Two

The second category, according to Trotter’s article, would incentivize the hiring of minorities as head coaches or primary football executives by rewarding teams with improved draft slots. I can see the reasoning behind this set of proposals, but I can also imagine a lot of push-back against them for various reasons. Here is how Trotter described this set of incentives:

[I]f the resolutions were to be voted in under the League Policy on Equal Employment and Workplace Diversity, they would work as follows:

If a team hires a minority head coach, that team, in the draft preceding the coach’s second season, would move up six spots from where it is slotted to pick in the third round.

A team would jump 10 spots under the same scenario for hiring a person of color as its primary football executive, a position more commonly known as general manager.

If a team were to fill both positions with diverse candidates in the same year, that club could jump 16 spots — six for the coach, 10 for the GM — and potentially move from the top of the third round to the middle of the second round.

Another incentive: a team’s fourth-round pick would climb five spots in the draft preceding the coach’s or GM’s third year if he is still with the team. That is considered significant because Steve Wilks and Vance Joseph, two of the four African-American head coaches hired since 2017, were fired after one and two seasons, respectively.

So, a team that is choosing between minority and non-minority candidates at head coach or GM gets a draft position “bonus” if they go with the minority candidate.

I have already seen commentary critical of this proposal.

Much of the immediate Twitter commentary has a much more sarcastic tone than this.

Category Three

There is a third set of initiatives.

Trotter’s article points out that 70 percent of head coach hires during the past three years came from two positions: quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator. The third set of initiatives aims to leverage this fact by providing compensation to the franchise that loses an assistant coach that is loosely modeled on the compensatory draft pick system.

According to Trotter:

  • if a minority assistant left to become a coordinator elsewhere, his former club would receive a fifth-round compensatory pick.
  • if a person of color leaves to become a head coach or general manager, his previous team would receive a third-round compensatory pick.
  • any team that hires a person of color as its quarterbacks coach would receive a compensatory pick at the end of the fourth round if it retains that employee beyond one season.

The provision is an attempt to get a more diverse pool of coaches working with quarterbacks, since the trend of late is to hire head coaches with offensive experience — 24 of the past 33 hires have been from the offensive side of the ball — and it’s considered even more beneficial to have worked with quarterbacks. Currently there are only two African-American QB coaches in Pep Hamilton of the Chargers and Marcus Brady of the Colts.

One pithy Twitter comment that I saw read, in response: “I look forward to seeing how Belichick games this.”

Category Four

The fourth set of proposals deals with a mere expansion of the current Rooney Rule.

  • by doubling the number of minority candidates a team must interview for head-coaching vacancies.
  • It also is expected to apply the rule to coordinator positions for the first time

My thoughts

Personally, I think that Rooney Rule has been in need of some help for a while, and I don’t doubt that every one of these proposals is put forward with the genuine hope that it will provide remedial change in the NFL.

That said, I can’t imagine this entire slate of proposals being adopted by the rather conservative owners of the NFL, who tend to move in baby steps rather than taking bold actions. Part of the reason why I have included some of the knee-jerk Twitter reaction in this article is to show that this package won’t be universally embraced, despite whatever positive motives underlie it.

Many NFL fans are aware that the Fritz Pollard Alliance is tasked with the role of policing teams’ compliance with the Rooney Rule. Fritz Pollard Alliance co-founder Cyrus Mehri is reported to have said about the NFL proposal: “It’s a reason for great hope because the stars are aligned for some positive steps forward. I think a lot of good things are going to happen.”

But, not everyone is equally enthusiastic.

Personally, I tend to agree with the thought that the NFL provided Jim Trotter with the information for his article so that they would have a ‘trial balloon’ to give the owners some sense of the acceptance among fans, which I think will continue to be much in the vein of the instant reactions; that is, that the total package of proposals is “underbaked” and not ready for adoption.

Having shown fans the full details of the proposals on the table, the owners will have some “cover” if they adopt some, but not all, of what’s been put forward.

In practical terms, instead of adopting a more stringent Rooney Rule without the pre-meeting leaks and taking flak for it, the owners can adopt some of the proposed changes and point out that they have been measured and prudent.

It seems to me that, in the wake of this widely publicized article, the Category Four proposals — requiring two minority candidates for head coaching positions instead of one, and exapnding the rule to cover coordinator positions — will be easily adopted as mere expansion of the existing rule.

Further, I think the Category One proposal that would stop clubs from blocking position coaches from interviewing for coordinator positions has perhaps a 50/50 shot of adoption.

Beyond that, I have a hard time imagining the owners agreeing to dramatic changes that would reward clubs with improved draft position or compensatory picks. I suspect that we will hear, following the owner’s meeting, that there was a great deal of interest in the proposals, and that a working committee has been set up to explore how these proposals or something similar can be effectively incorporated into league personnel practices, and that they will be considered again next year.

With little other news happening in the world of sports, expect a lot of coverage of this issue in the national press between now and Tuesday.