When it comes to diversity in the NFL, nepotism trumps the 'Rooney Rule'

This NFL offseason represents the 10-year anniversary of the inception of the "Rooney Rule." The rule, named after Pittsburgh Steelers' Chairman Dan Rooney, requires teams to interview minority candidates for all head coaching and senior football operation positions. Initially, the rule showed some signs of success, but the coaching moves from this offseason have even Dan Rooney's son, Steelers' President Art Rooney II, wondering "whether we are really reviewing minority coaches in a satisfactory manner."

The younger Mr. Rooney's comments come after a hiring period in which eight coaching vacancies, precisely one quarter of the league, were filled by white men, leaving the total number of minorities in head coaching positions at just four: The Steelers' Mike Tomlin, the Minnesota Vikings' Leslie Frazier, the Cincinnati Bengals' Marvin Lewis, and the Carolina Panthers' Ron Rivera.

It seems a given that coaches should be chosen solely on merit, but it is hard to ignore other connections that appear to open doors for today's coaches. Given the consistent trend of coaches hiring their sons, brothers and nephews to assistant coaching positions, there is reason to question whether a culture of nepotism is hurting the chances of minority candidates.

Take a look at the Baltimore Ravens, for example, where 23-year-old Jay Harbaugh is working for his uncle, John. Jay got his start as a coaching intern under his dad, Jim, head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Is it old boy politics or simply a product of the connections and contacts that are present in every industry around the globe?

Skeptics will say it's certainly the old boy network in full glory. While the sports industry is hardly alone in its embrace of the "who-you-know system," it seems NFL coaches have made it standard operating procedure.

The Ravens are hardly the only team that seems to combine family reunions with job fairs. Rex and Rob Ryan (sons of Buddy) hold down the coaching jobs with the New York Jets and New Orleans Saints. Legendary Dolphins coach Don Shula hired his son, Dave, in 1982, and within a decade, he was head coach of the Bengals. Dave's younger brother, Mike, is now offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers. Father-and-son duo Bum and Wade Phillips have been head coaches for five NFL teams between them, and now Wade's son, Wes, is the tight ends coach in Dallas. But that's just the beginning.

•This offseason the Washington Redskins hired former San Diego Chargers' General Manager A.J. Smith, father of 'Skins scout Kyle, to the front office. The Redskins are coached by Mike Shanahan, whose son Kyle is the team's offensive coordinator. All these men are under the employ of General Manager Bruce Allen, son of Hall of Fame coach George Allen.

•Bill Belichick hired his son Steve in the fall of 2012 as a coaching assistant. Steve had played one year of Division I football as a long snapper in his senior season for Rutgers.

•When Brian Billick was with the Ravens, he hired his brother-in-law Mike Smith, now the Falcons' head coach, straight out of Division II Tennessee Tech.

•Kansas City Chiefs Coach Andy Reid has his son Britt in charge of "quality control."

•When Jim Fassel was an offensive coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens, he hired his son John to his first NFL position as the team's assistant special teams coach.

•When Mike Tice was with the Minnesota Vikings, he hired his brother John to be an offensive assistant. It was John Tice's first NFL job, and he has not had another one since Mike left the Vikings.

•When Nate Carroll graduated from USC, his father Pete hired him to be an assistant with the Seattle Seahawks where Pete was head coach.

Nepotism is certainly not unique to pro football, and many of these jobs are internships or low-level, low-paying positions borne with little impact to the bottom line. The real sin is that NFL franchises are sacrificing opportunities for more deserving candidates so that a head coach, GM, or scout can hand a dream job to a family member.

American University's Washington College of Law Professor N. Jeremi Duru, author of 2011's "Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL," says this practice creates a networking disadvantage and robs a generation of minority candidates of valuable experience.

"There are inadequately credentialed folks coming in under their dad," says Mr. Duru. "It's important to have people you trust, who you know will have your back. You may be getting that sort of loyalty, [but] you may be suffering with respect to other important parts of the job, which is competence overall."

The institution of the Rooney Rule was a step in the right direction, but the NFL can do more to level the playing field. Here are two ideas:

First, the NFL should replicate the combine system already in place for players and use it here to measure candidates (former players, etc.) who want to be NFL coaches. The NFL combine has been criticized as antiquated, but it is really no different than any other industry asking applicants to take a writing test or use a piece of equipment to gauge their competence.

The idea is to create metrics so young applicants are measured and ranked by their perceived ability. The top 32 finishers could win an apprenticeship with one of the NFL teams. More than 7 million people tuned in to watch the combine. How many would watch an NFL reality show that would create an opportunity for a former player and at the same time ensure that a junior member of the coaching staff makes it on merit rather than connections? We think quite a few.

Second, create a moratorium on coaching changes until after the Super Bowl. When everyone adheres to the same schedule, you create a window in which a wider number of coaches can be considered. Owners were likely far more deliberate in how they hired for the various businesses they owned before they became NFL owners. Why not apply that logic to football?

"The NFL season at this point never stops," Mr. Duru says. "If you slow down and consider a broader pool and pull out of your comfort zone, to not have that knee-jerk reaction, I think coaches of color would fare better."

The NFL and its owners are missing a leadership opportunity that, we believe, was at the heart of what Dan Rooney wanted to achieve. Sports, above all other industries, are rooted on statistics and ability. Head coaches have the right to choose their own staffs, but there's more that can be done to ensure the youngest staff members are there on merit.

If the idea is to find the best candidate possible, and to give the team the best chance to win, wouldn't it really serve everyone's long-term interests?

Jason Maloni (jmaloni@levick.com) is senior vice president with LEVICK, a crisis communications firm that counsels institutions, franchises and athletes, in addition to corporate clients. Alexander Diegel (adiegel@levick.com) is LEVICK Fellow and a former contributor to The Bleacher Report and The Atlantic.

Correction: An earlier version of this article gave the incorrect job title for Rob Ryan. The Sun regrets the error.

  • Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts
  • Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
    Related Content
    Comments
    Loading