Veteran NFL coach Anthony Lynn designed a personal defense in response to the league policy that requires teams to interview minority candidates for their top jobs.
While he appreciates the intent of the policy, Lynn, who is Black, long ago added his own amendment to it: As his star rose as one of the league’s top assistants in the mid-2010s, Lynn would only meet with teams to discuss a head coaching vacancy if they had already brought in at least one other minority candidate, something the so-called Rooney Rule didn’t require until 2021.
“I just didn’t want to be a token interview,” Lynn, the Black assistant head coach of the San Francisco 49ers told The Associated Press. “I really believe in the spirit of the Rooney Rule, but I just saw how people were abusing it and I didn’t want to be a part of that.”
The rule is named after former Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who oversaw the league’s diversity committee, and it was revolutionary in 2003. It was almost universally praised as a good idea that would help diversity.
Today, it’s often viewed as a policy that is followed by the letter, but not in spirit. It can be a humiliating process for those it was designed to help and falls far short of its goal: There were three non-white head coaches when the rule went into effect in 2003; today, there are five.
The racial discrimination lawsuit filed this month against the NFL and several teams by former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores has magnified attention on the league’s hiring practices and stirred up long-simmering frustrations with the Rooney Rule. It has also prompted comparisons from Lynn and others to corporate America, which has also struggled to diversify its leadership ranks.
What drove Flores to file the lawsuit, he said, was a string of text messages with Patriots coach Bill Belichick three days before a scheduled interview about a head coaching job with the New York Giants. Those texts led Flores to believe that Brian Daboll had already been chosen as the new coach.
“It was humiliating to be quite honest,” Flores said. “There was disbelief, there was anger, there was a wave of emotion for a lot of reasons.”
For Lynn, perseverance paid off in 2017 when the Los Angeles Chargers made him the first Black head coach in team history.
The candidates Lynn beat out for the job included Teryl Austin, who is now a defensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Austin’s interview with the Chargers was one of 11 occasions where he earned a face-to-face meeting, but failed to land the head coaching job.
There were times when Austin felt like he was really in contention, and others when he felt he “was one of those guys where they were checking a box” to comply with the mandate.
“You can’t say for sure,” Austin said. “Maybe I’m not what the owners see when they look in the mirror and they see leadership positions.”
Austin’s personal journey is included in Flores’ lawsuit as evidence of a discriminatory system that is failing qualified job candidates.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell partially pushed back on Wednesday, saying the league has made a “tremendous amount of progress in a lot of areas.” He acknowledged, though, that the league is lagging when it comes to head coaches.
“We have more work to do and we’ve got to figure that out,” Goodell said in Los Angeles ahead of Sunday’s Super Bowl at SoFi Stadium. Goodell said the NFL has already engaged “outside experts” to help it review hiring policies and he didn’t rule out the possibility of eliminating the Rooney Rule.
The two teams playing in this year’s Super Bowl — the Cincinnati Bengals and the Los Angeles Rams — are led by offensive-minded, white head coaches in their 30s. There is considerable diversity, however, among the dozens of coaches that oversee their offenses, defenses and special teams. Half of the assistants working for Rams coach Sean McVay are Black.
Art Rooney II — Dan’s son and the current Steelers president — defended the impact of his father’s eponymous hiring policy.
“While I acknowledge that we have not seen progress in the ranks of head coaches, we have seen marked improvement in the hiring of women and minorities in other key leadership roles,” he said.
In many cases, there was nowhere to go but up.
Roughly 70% of NFL players are Black, but the NFL is running in place in terms of diversifying its most visible leadership positions. While over a third of assistant coaches are Black, only two teams employed Black offensive coordinators this season, considered the final rung of the ladder before becoming a head coach. Nearly 85% of the league’s general managers and player personnel directors are white, according to a report by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.
“This is a willingness and heart issue,” said Troy Vincent, a former player who is now the league’s executive vice president of football operations. “You can’t force people, so we have to continue to educate and share with those in the hiring cycle.”
Players also have a role in promoting change, says Richard Lapchick, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.
Lapchick points to the NBA, where players have taken an increasingly public role in social activism. Nearly half of the NBA’s 30 teams are led by Black coaches and over a quarter employ Black general managers.
“I don’t think that the (NFL) office can do it on their own,” Lapchick said. “The impact will only take place … when the athletes themselves raise their voice and say it’s important.”
Corporate America has run into many of the same diversity challenges as the NFL, and the same legal problems.
“The NFL is no different than the rest of society,” said Lynn of the 49ers. “Look at the top Fortune 500 companies. How many minority CEOs do you have in that industry versus ours? Our percentage may be higher.”
Over 90% of Fortune 500 presidents and CEOs are white and only 3% are Black, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.
Former Morgan Stanley chief diversity officer Marilyn Booker sued the bank in 2020 for racial discrimination and retaliation. She alleged that the company’s overwhelmingly white executives stymied her plans to diversify its management structure. The two sides eventually settled out of court.
Last year, five of the largest banks — J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, U.S. Bancorp and Wells Fargo — agreed to make public commitments to policies that echo the Rooney Rule, according to a spokesman at the AFL-CIO, which helped secure the agreements.
But experts say many of the biggest companies still have further to go.
“Many companies are engaging in these types of DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) efforts as performance-art theatrics,” said Nicholas Pearce, clinical professor of management and organizations at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.
Whether in sports or business, Pearce says one easy way for hiring managers to reduce the effects of implicit bias would be to require more diverse panels to conduct job interviews.
The NFL’s ownership ranks are overwhelmingly white. Of the league’s 32 teams, the only minorities to have a controlling ownership stake are the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Shad Khan and the Buffalo Bills’ Kim Pegula, who co-owns the team with her husband, Terry.
Jerod Mayo, a 35-year-old linebackers coach for the New England Patriots, has ambitions of one day becoming a head coach. And Mayo, who is Black, is optimistic that by the time he’s ready, many of the challenges that veterans such as Lynn, Austin and Flores have faced, will be a thing of the past.
“You know, that’s a beautiful day where we don’t need the Rooney Rule.”
By Will Graves, AP Sports Writer