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Lion Officials Criticize $200,000 Fine on Millen

Times Staff Writer

Three days after the NFL fined Detroit Lion President Matt Millen $200,000 for failing to follow the league’s minority-hiring guidelines, Lion owner William Clay Ford sharply criticized Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and accused the league of making his team a “scapegoat.”

“I think it’s a shame and totally unwarranted,” Ford told reporters Monday at training camp. “I’ve lost a lot of respect for the commissioner because of the way he’s handled this. He has made a scapegoat out of the Detroit Lions, and I think the timing shows that. He waited six months, then nailed us on the eve of camp opening when attention would be on us.”

Millen was fined for not interviewing any minority candidates before hiring Steve Mariucci in January. The team said five minority candidates turned down interview offers when it became obvious Millen had zeroed in on Mariucci, former coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

There are three black NFL head coaches -- Indianapolis’ Tony Dungy, Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis and the New York Jets’ Herman Edwards -- and the league has stepped up its efforts in recent months to increase those numbers. A group headed by lawyers Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri released a report last year on the league’s minority-hiring practices and said it might sue unless more black coaches were hired.

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League owners agreed in principle in December to interview at least one minority candidate when searching for a head coach, the possible exception being when an assistant coach is promoted to the job.

In a letter to the Lions, Tagliabue wrote: “While certain of the difficulties that you encountered in seeking to schedule interviews with minority candidates were beyond your control, you did not take sufficient steps to satisfy the commitment that you had made.”

Tagliabue told teams they would be fined $500,000 or more for failing to interview minority candidates in the future, saying the practice would be viewed as “conduct detrimental” to the league.

Ford and Tagliabue had a terse telephone conversation after the fine was levied and failed to reach an understanding.

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“I just kept getting madder and madder until I hung up on him,” Ford said. “I was just getting the usual legalese double-talk. He really couldn’t argue with any of my points.”

A league spokesman declined to comment on Ford’s remarks.

The fine was appropriate and should be an effective deterrent, said Kellen Winslow, executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a group of coaches and executives promoting minority hiring in the league.

“We look at it as a definite positive that the commissioner would take action against someone who broke the rules,” Winslow said. “This is not about Matt Millen or the Detroit Lions. It’s not about their hiring practices. It’s the fact they broke a rule.”

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That is enough to warrant punishment, he said, even if the Lions had good intentions in skirting the guidelines.

“Back in the days when I was playing, if I committed an illegal procedure and I had the best of intentions but I jumped the gun, my team got penalized,” said Winslow, among the best tight ends in NFL history. “That’s all this is.”

The Lions strongly disagree. A day before his father ripped Tagliabue, Bill Ford Jr. told reporters it was the “height of hypocrisy” that the league made the unusual decision to single out Millen.

“I think it’s unfair to Matt and his reputation,” he said. “Anybody who knows him knows he’s honest as the day is long. And he’s the last guy to be racially motivated.”

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The elder Ford said Monday the team has yet to decide whether it will appeal the fine.

“I’ve got an open mind about that,” he said. “We’re going to explore our options, but I have a feeling it’s a fait accompli.”

Winslow said the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a group named for the league’s first black coach, would like to see the rule expanded to include jobs other than head coach.

“We feel that people of color have been excluded from opportunities in the front office, public relations, marketing and finance,” he said. “We have a very good working rapport with the league office. They take our phone calls when we have a concern. We take at face value the commissioner’s commitment to diversity.”

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