The Seattle Seahawks didn’t officially name Pete Carroll their head coach until last Monday, but anyone with even a passing interest in the NFL knew the deal had been in place for at least three days. Both sides just needed to hammer out some last minute contractual details and the Seahawks needed to fulfill one pesky little obligation: The Rooney Rule.
Named after Pittsburgh Steelers owner and U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney, the Rooney Rule requires all NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate for any head coaching or front office position before making a hire. At its best, the rule gives otherwise overlooked minorities an opportunity to get a foot in the door and has led to a 12 percent increase in African American head coaches since 2003. But most of the time, the rule is nothing more than a façade so teams don’t have Al Sharpton knocking at their doors every time they hire another white head coach.
Most of the time, there are no actual minority candidates. There are just pawns used to let the game play out.
The Seahawks had no intention of hiring Minnesota Vikings Defensive Coordinator Leslie Frazier just as Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder had no intention of bringing in anyone other than Mike Shanahan at the beginning of the month. But both teams still made sure to cover themselves by interviewing a minority candidate before moving forward with their first choices.
That’s the way the Rooney Rule typically plays out. For every success story, like Mike Tomlin of the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers, there are ten Leslie Frazier’s, who go into the interview knowing everything is a sham and they have zero chance of getting a head coaching gig. Their best hope is to be impressive enough so teams can tell the media how intelligent and eloquent they were. Then they might have a shot at a job down the line.
Sports aren’t supposed to work this way, of course. The sports leagues like to brag about how progressive they are, how if the civil rights movement is complete anywhere, it’s in football or basketball, where minorities are the overwhelming majority. They love to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. and all he accomplished, but they do it in a way that says, “Hey look at us. We’ve done the best of all.”
They do have good reason to show off. After all, of the 50 highest paid athletes in the country, 33 are black or Hispanic. To young children in most urban neighborhoods, it still appears that the best way to get rich is through sports.
But what isn’t focused on nearly enough is the number of athletes who make it all the way to the pros and still end up broke. Last year, Sports Illustrated reported that 78% of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress and that 60% of NBA players are broke within five years of being out of the league. You do the math. If the majority of professional athletes are minorities, then how are they doing financially when their playing days are over?
At least part of the reason so money former athletes have money problems is that they don’t have anything to do when their careers are over. Very few will ever get into coaching and even less will have a legitimate chance at a head coaching job. In football, there are just 17 African-American head coaches in the NFL and the Football Bowl Subdivision. In the NBA, there are six African-American head coaches and of the current top 25 teams in Division I men’s college basketball, only three have black coaches.
Here’s what needs to happen: There needs to be a mandatory rule that at least a certain number of minorities must be placed on all coaching staffs in every sport. The Rooney Rule only exists in the NFL and it’s treated more as a formality than anything else. The rest of the professional sports leagues and the NCAA do nothing to promote minority coaching candidates. But putting at least one minority coach on every staff would ensure that they at least get their foot in the door. Maybe then we’ll start to see changes.
Because right now, best of all just ain’t good enough.