“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
When Frederick Douglass uttered those words in his famous speech on August 3rd, 1857, the NFL wasn’t even a thought. But over a century and a half later, those words hold great meaning for the league, especially when it comes to minority coaches.
In 1921, Fritz Pollard became the first minority head coach in NFL history. After that, unfortunately, minority coaches were blanked from the head coaching positions until 1979, when the Raiders hired Tom Flores.
The Raiders also hired the first Black head coach in the NFL’s modern era when they tapped Art Shell for the position in 1989.
ESPN News Feature 1989
Yet it wasn’t enough and more needed to be done, especially after Dungy and Green were fired after the 2002 season, despite having exceptional resumes. That’s when team owners, led by then Steelers’ owner Dan Rooney, stepped in and helped establish the Rooney Rule to promote diversity in NFL coaching.
But then Black Monday hit at the end of 2018, resulting in the firing of five Black head coaches and a huge Black eye for the League (pun intended). After much frustration and anger, Commission Roger Goodell briefly addressed the situation around the Super Bowl, many feeling that it was an empty attempt to address the issue.
“We don’t look at the success or failure of the Rooney Rule over one-year increments,” said Goodell.
Now, almost two months after Black Monday, a new Rooney has stepped up to put the Rooney Rule back into the spotlight, and Art Rooney II is keeping it 100.
“We have to judge our progress on the results. It’s like looking at your team. You are what your record says you are. I’m not going to sit here and accuse anyone of racism, but the facts are what they are. We have to look at the opportunities that were given to minorities this latest round and see what can be done about it.”
This is something that needs to change as not only are Black head coaches fading, but their interview opportunities seem to be going the same way as evidenced by Detroit’s firing of Jim Caldwell after a 9-7 season and sticking with Matt Patricia despite a 6-10 season.
The Dolphins were the only team to hire a Black coach, tapping former Patriots’ defensive coordinator Brian Flores. With that hire, the Dolphins are the only team to have a Black GM, Assistant GM, head coach and assistant head coach.
Uncle Luke and Rick Ross must be proud of their hometown team.
But one hire at a time when five were lost and six openings were up is bad. This is even worse considering that the interview opportunities for minority candidates seemed limited to none, the only name really carrying any sort of weight was Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Beinnemy.
“I would say that this is primarily a phenomenon of just how competitive this process is and how short the timelines for teams [to judge coaches] are,” said Cyrus Mehri, counsel for the Fritz Pollard Alliance, back in December. “We are heartened by the strengthening of the Rooney Rule as we move forward. But there are some challenges in the offensive coordinator and quarterback coach positions. There are simply too few minority coaches in those positions. That’s something we need to focus on.”
Yes, there was some progress and a pipeline is sorely needed. But after going 1 for 6, the league needs to do better.
Hopefully Art Rooney II can re-energize his namesake’s rule and continue what his father started.