Doug Robinson: NFL on slippery slope with its hiring rules

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 22 2013 10:42 p.m. MST

So just how far down the slippery slope of affirmative action does the National Football League want to go?

Coaches and general managers?

Quarterbacks and cornerbacks?

Kickers?

Since minorities were passed over to fill the eight head coach and seven general manager positions that were vacated last month, there has been much discussion about expanding the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and front-office positions.

For the record, there are currently three black head coaches in the NFL — Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis, Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin and Minnesota's Leslie Frazier — but there were five during the 2012 season (Chicago's Lovie Smith and Kansas City's Romeo Crennel were fired last month because of their teams' poor performances).

As Tony Dungy pointed out on NBC, a black coach hasn't been hired as a result of an external search for six years (the others were already assistants with the team and promoted to head coach).

It is almost condescending to note that black coaches have proved their ability to lead teams — Tomlin and Dungy have guided their teams to Super Bowl victories, and Smith took the Bears to a Super Bowl.

But how far can the league go in mandating hiring practices? Even Dan Rooney, the namesake of the rule because his team (the Steelers) hired minority coaches before it was cool, says as much. In addressing the recent hirings, Rooney told NFL.com, "Every team followed procedures, interviewed minority candidates. From that standpoint, we were pleased. As far as people saying they didn't get the job — maybe this year there weren't the candidates they thought there would be so they would get the jobs. On the other hand, it's up to the coach, the candidate, to show the owner that they're capable of doing the job. That's a big thing. Evidently, they weren't able to do that this year."

The rule has been credited for promoting the hiring of minorities but, if that's true, it has also been a farce, with teams going through the motions of interviewing minority coaches even when it is apparent they have no intention of hiring them because they considered others more qualified. There is only so much the league can do.

As Rooney said, "You can't saddle these (coaches or owners) and say, 'You have to do this.' We want minorities to get the job, and we're willing to say that's our goal. But when it gets down to a team, you can't say to them, 'This is what you have to do.' You can say to the owners (have to follow) the Rooney Rule."

In the end, it takes time and change, and Tomlin, Dungy and many others have made their points through performance, but no one was forced to give them a chance. Besides, where does it end? There is a big racial inequity elsewhere in the league that is largely ignored — on the field. And don't say there is a difference between hiring attitudes for the sideline, front office and roster. It should all be based on the same thing: Ability.

If the league is going to wade further into the business of quotas and affirmative action, then what about the dearth of white players at defensive back and running back, positions almost completely manned by black players? Or, for that matter, consider the dearth of black quarterbacks — there were only six black players starting at that position last season in the 32-team league.

It wouldn't be a stretch to say there is a bigger bias against white athletes than there is against black coaches. Some 70 percent of the league is composed of black players, and everyone has heard the talk of black athletic superiority, which leads to bias. It's the same kind of bias that works against black quarterbacks and perhaps coaches.

Should something be done to tweak the rosters to even up the black-white numbers on the field? After all, Major League Baseball has done a lot of hand-wringing about the decline of black players in baseball (down to about 9 percent of the league). Last fall there were charges leveled against the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves because they have too many white players on their roster.

This business of race counting is tricky.

One former NFL player — also a minority — says there is a dearth of white skill players "because most of those positions are coached by African-Americans. That's something that's happened in the last 20 years. People are predisposed to hire people who are like they are. Players talk about it all the time — the fact that black players play those positions. When I played, our team had one white running back out of six on the roster. He was the only white guy on the team. There are a lot of fast white guys who should be the speed guy, but they aren't thought of that way. It's absolutely true (there's a bias). Sometimes white coaches are more guilty of that than the black coaches. In my career, I heard it (bias) more from white coaches. It works against black quarterbacks, too. Coaches would rather have a black quarterback and wide receiver and a white quarterback."

If the NFL really wants to bore further into social manipulation, they've got a lot of work to do.

email: drob@desnews.com

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