Whither The Rooney Rule?

ESPN’s Mike Sando released a comprehensive article on Monday logging how minority representation at the NFL’s highest coaching levels has again lagged behind the general minority populace of NFL players and coaches, thus bringing into question of the efficacy of the Rooney Rule, or whether it is being executed faithfully.  This, in turn, launched a spirited debate over here.  This is a subject that I have natural interest in as an NFL fan, but one that I knew I couldn’t just shoot at the hip on.  So I spent yesterday listening and thinking, then slept on it before writing this article.

Is the problem racism…or implicit bias?

I’m not convinced that many within NFL circles are racist, in the sense of holding an active belief of white supremacy.  One couldn’t make it that far in football today with that kind of mindset.  However, where I think the problem may lie comes from a concept that MattR mentioned in a different subthread:

And one of the issues is that things like “fit” and “comfort level” can be subject to unconscious racism (human nature is that we are most comfortable around people similar to ourselves).

The term that I’ve found most useful to define this is “implicit bias“.  The reason why is, as we saw yesterday, “racism” is a very loaded term that implicates a rather evil sense of mind, and it’s all too easy to assume that one is arguing in bad faith when such an accusation is thrown. Some will argue that implicit bias along racial lines is still, albeit milder, a form a racism.  I can understand that argument, but given the common definition of racism, it’s one that’s going to take much care in order to advance.

But the other reason why I want to focus on implicit bias is that it can cut in many more dimensions than just race.  In the NFL, the most obvious one that comes to mind first (and one that can indirectly aggravate the racial factor) is nepotism.  It wasn’t a coincidence when Mike Shanahan hired his son as his offensive coordinator, nor was it so when Rex Ryan hired his brother for the notorious “assistant head coach” position.  And no, it certainly wasn’t coincidental when John Elway hired the man who was high backup quarterback for nine years and his offensive coordinator for another four years.

What makes a “qualified” head coach?

Another example of where implicit bias rears its ugly head in this discussion is in regards to the question above.  I bet if you asked this question to NFL fans, including yourself, the instant answer you’d give is “an offensive or defensive coordinator”.  However, now ask yourself just how many brilliant NFL minds failed as head coaches.  Just off the top of my head, I can give you Buddy Ryan, Norv Turner, Steve Spagnuolo, Ken Whisenhunt, Dick LeBeau and yes, even a name now beloved by Broncos fans, Wade Phillips.  I’m sure you can mention some more.

This is because while Xs and Os knowledge may be necessary to be a head coach, it’s not sufficient.  It also takes excelling in the management of multiple people and groups in order to get them working together on the goal of winning games.  It’s a talent that not everyone has, and it’s quite different from the technocratic mind that’s common in successful coordinators.  The two talents can intersect, but it’s obviously a very smaller segment of the NFL population, likely smaller than 32.

One owner that recognized this was none other than Dan Rooney himself when he hired Mike Tomlin.  Tomlin’s hire was unexpected at the time, with both Whisenhunt and LeBeau as hot in-house candidates with multiple years of coordinator experience, as opposed to Tomlin’s mere one year in Minnesota.  But nine seasons later, his 98-57 record, including one Super Bowl win and two appearances, speaks for itself.  And where I personally see Tomlin’s management skills shine is where he didn’t disturb things that were working.  Despite being a Tampa 2 guy, Tomlin retained LeBeau and his patented zone blitzing for eight years.  Cutting against the grain of what you were taught takes a real level of insightfulness.

So how can the Rooney Rule be improved?

The way to tackle implicit bias is to constantly remind people of its presence in all of our human minds.  It’s a process that can be incredibly annoying when you are acting in good faith, but it does keep you in check.  I feel that tethers the spirit of the Rooney Rule, as a gentle reminder that there are talented minority minds out there that shouldn’t get lost in the mix.

But I do think that it should be seen as merely a first step in advancing the process, and as recent history shows, it hasn’t been sufficient.  Where I think the next step may lie centers around Tony Dungy’s comment in Sando’s article:

The good thing about the Rooney Rule was not that you had to interview a minority candidate but that it slowed the process down and made you do some research, but now it seems like in the last few years, people haven’t really done what the rule was designed for. It has become, ‘Just let me talk to a couple minority coaches very quickly so I can go about the business of hiring the person I really want to hire anyway.

To put our favorite general manager under the magnifying glass once again, it took Elway only one week to hire Kubiak.  It’s likely that if he waited longer, he still would have hired Kubiak, but perhaps if he took the time to seriously interview, say, Vance Joseph, there just might have been some attribute that clicks in the minds of Elway and others that at least gives you pause.

With that in mind, here are some ideas that I have to add onto the Rooney Rule with the purpose of meeting Dungy’s goal:

  • At least five candidates have to be interviewed. Start off by casting a wide net.
  • At least two of those five must only have experience as position coaches. Again, this is to work against the bias of assuming that coordinators have superior teamwide management skills.
  • At least two candidates must receive a second interview. An owner or GM may really like what they heard in an early interview, but bringing multiple candidates back to ask more questions in light of what they heard afterward can help to keep those early thoughts in check.
  • Non-playoff teams may not make a hire until after conference championship weekend, and playoff teams may not hire until after the Super Bowl.  Here is your mandatory cooloff period that Dungy is seeking, and that also provides for the time to satisfy the requirements above.  Setting bright line dates for hiring will also reduce to some extent the stress of having to outcompete for a candidate by making a hire quicker than the other team.

As always, when I think of ideas like this I know there’s something I haven’t thought through that can thus be improved on, so feel free to add some counterpoints if necessary in comments.