Rooney Rule couldn't work forever

Published Jan. 13, 2011 12:00 a.m. ET

Before we bury the NFL’s Rooney Rule, let’s take stock of what it has produced:

1. Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin 12-4; 2. Chicago’s Lovie Smith 11-5; 3. Tampa Bay’s Raheem Morris 10-6; 4. Indianapolis’ Jim Caldwell 10-6; 5. San Francisco’s Mike Singletary 5-10; 6. Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis 4-12.

The combined record of the African Americans who started the 2010 season as head coaches was an impressive 52-43. Three of the six have guided their teams to the Super Bowl.

The Rooney Rule, like it or not, has worked.

Its success, however, does not give the rule a lifetime free pass. Its success does not protect the rule from growing stale or needing improvement. Fairness, of any kind, requires constant vigilance and effort. Too often, we think there is a single solution to complex problems.

It rarely takes a single act to produce a problem. The same can be said for fixing one.

This is not the first coaching-carousel season NFL owners have turned the Rooney Rule into a joke, interviewing token minority candidates to avoid a paltry fine while waiting to rubber-stamp the hiring of a white coach.


Last year, the black-run Fritz Pollard Alliance, which is supposed to promote minority coaching candidates, torpedoed the credibility of its organization and the Rooney Rule when it ruled Daniel Snyder complied with the spirit of the Rooney Rule by interviewing Jerry Gray long after everyone knew Mike Shanahan would be Washington’s next coach.

This year, Jerry Jones “interviewed” position coach Ray Sherman to be the Cowboys head coach and then let Jason Garrett fire Sherman the next day.

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross set a new precedent last week. He begged Jim Harbaugh to coach Miami without ever firing his current head coach Tony Sparano.

For the most part, billionaire NFL owners don’t care about the Rooney Rule or any other rule. The major perk of being rich is that rules do not apply. Ross wasn’t fair to Sparano, who is white. Al Davis wasn’t fair to Tom Cable, a white coach dismissed for the crime of making the Raiders respectable and competitive.

The Rooney Rule, established in 2003, was effective early on in creating opportunities because the media initially frowned on organizations that didn’t comply. There was considerable public pressure for ownership to do the right thing. By 2003, there had only been six minority coaches in the history of the modern NFL.

Heading into this season, 18 percent of the jobs were held by African Americans. Led by Tony Dungy and Mike Tomlin, African Americans have proved to be every bit as effective, skilled and professional as their white counterparts.

Led by Mike Singletary, we have proved to be every bit as comically inept as Rich Kotite. And led by Jim Caldwell, we have proven we can ride a gravy train as smoothly as Barry Switzer and mismanage the clock as effortlessly as Andy Reid.

We can do it all.

The media have quickly moved on to a new crusade, a cause of little substance and even less risk -- fixing college football’s postseason.

The movement to promote and sustain racial fairness lost its appeal long before there was a Tea Party.

Well, I still care. Given the success of African-American coaches, I think it’s important that we safeguard the opportunity for the NFL to discover more Mike Tomlins.

The Rooney Rule has lost its effectiveness to do that. Billionaire owners do not care about a $250,000 fine for failing to comply with a rule they don’t believe in. By the time his career is finished, millionaire linebacker James Harrison will pay that much money in fines for “illegal” hits.

A quarter of a million dollars is not a deterrent for Stephen Ross or Jerry Jones or Daniel Snyder.

If commissioner Roger Goodell wanted to give the rule real teeth and demonstrate to players that he enforces his rules with ownership as strictly as he does with players, he’d strip non-complying teams of a third-round draft pick.

That is not my solution, however.

At this point, forcing NFL owners to conduct token interviews won’t result in more hires. I think the league should partner with Tony Dungy on an annual daylong seminar at the owners meeting that mandates ownership, team presidents and general managers interact with and interview Dungy’s handpicked top-25 minority coaching candidates.

Networking is how minority coaches can get on the radar for head-coaching and coordinator jobs. It’s rare that you win a coaching job in the interview process. You win the job when there is a mutual attraction, when someone you trust and respect has told you, “You’re really going to like this person. He/she is perfect for you.”

Again, the decisions are made before the interview process. Minority coaches need to be on Stephen Ross’ radar long before Ross even decides to fire Tony Sparano.