The NFL instituted the Rooney Rule in 2003 to encourage diversity among coaches and general managers. But entering the 2020 season, the NFL only has four minority head coaches, two minority offensive coordinators, and two minority GMs.
It has left many minority coaches and even league executives frustrated with the league’s progress.
“The facts are we have a broken system,” Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, said in a media call on Tuesday. “And we are looking to implement things to change the direction of where we’re going. And it’s been south — not a gradual south, but a direct south.”
On Tuesday, NFL owners agreed to three initiatives to improve workplace diversity over a two-hour conference call that was held in lieu of the normal spring meetings.
They enhanced the Rooney Rule to cover most senior-level positions in organizations and involve more job candidates. They passed a resolution that prohibits teams from preventing coaches from interviewing for promotions with other teams. And all 32 teams will now host a yearlong coaching fellowship program geared toward minority candidates.
The NFL implemented the initiatives in consultation with the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which advocates on behalf of minority coaches.
“We’re not satisfied where we are. We know we should and can do better,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said. “I would say diversity and inclusion represents something we’ve been focused on for the last four to five months intensely, and working with the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the package of steps and initiatives the ownership fully supported today, all will contribute to making progress in this area.”
Vincent called the changes to the mobility rule “historic.” Teams may no longer block a coach from interviewing for a “bona fide” offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator or special teams coordinator job. Nor can teams block a non-secondary level front office employee from interviewing for a bona fide assistant GM job.
“We had developed over the years a number of impediments through contract language and titles that clubs have, in their own interests, tried to keep their coaches on their staff,” Steelers president Art Rooney II said. “But it did have the impact of reducing the level of mobility that we’d like to see across the league for coaching positions.”
Vincent said the old policies hurt minorities “disproportionately,” though he did not have supporting statistics.
“What the ownership voted on today has been a fight for decades to get mobility that disproportionately affected people of color,” Vincent said. “Just an ability to have an interview, you don’t get hired without an interview. So that mobility resolution today was significant, historic, because it had been a fight for decades. That’s the foundation. That was the linchpin of these inequalities.”
The Rooney Rule governing the hiring process was also enhanced by several factors. Teams will now be required to interview at least two minority candidates for head coaching vacancies, and internal candidates won’t count. They will have to interview at least one minority candidate for any coordinator opening (offense, defense, and special teams). And they have to interview at least one external minority candidate for a senior football operations or GM position.
Teams must also now interview at least one minority or female applicant for high-level openings such as team president, and for senior executives across the business operation. The league office will be held to the same requirements when hiring senior-level positions.
“The major steps we took are significant, and we think will help us develop further in the minority hiring area and minority opportunity area that we feel we need to do better on,” Rooney said.
But the NFL tabled until a future meeting the proposal to reward teams with improved draft picks should they hire a minority head coach.
“We may want to go back and talk to others, including the Fritz Pollard Alliance, and try to strengthen it, and try to make sure that it does what we were originally intending,” Goodell said.
The owners also received a lengthy health and safety update on Monday as team facilities across the league began slowly opening to business-side employees (but not coaches or players).
Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, said the league wants to return in a slow, phased progression this summer, and Jeffrey Pash, the executive vice president and general counsel, said the league hopes to have players and coaches from all teams return around the same time to maintain competitive balance.
“We want to walk, then jog, then run as we think about reopening our facilities,” Sills said.
The league is formulating its safety and social distancing protocols to be implemented by each team this fall. The NFL is also closely communicating with and monitoring other sports leagues such as Major League Baseball and German professional soccer to see how they are handling a return.
Sills said the NFL expects to have players contract COVID-19 this fall.
“We fully well expect that we will have positive cases that arise, because we think this disease will remain endemic in society,” Sills said. “Our challenge is to identify them as quickly as possible and prevent spread to any other participants. So we’re working very diligently on that, and we’ll have detailed plans at a later time.”
A plan of frequent testing and tracing will be key, and Sills hopes testing supplies will increase significantly by the time football season begins. But he said the NFL wouldn’t hog resources needed by the public.
“We want to make sure we are in no way affecting the supply of tests that are used by the healthcare system,” Sills said. “We’ll follow the science … but we have to do so thoughtfully in conjunction with the public health system.”
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.