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The Reckoning of the Rooney Rule

When former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores filed a 58-page class-action lawsuit claiming racist hiring practices against the New York Giants, Miami Dolphins, Denver Broncos, and the NFL itself, all articles recalled one common denominator: the Rooney Rule. 

The NFL’s football operations website states, “The Rooney Rule encourages best hiring practices to foster and provide opportunity to diverse leadership throughout the NFL.” The league has continuously tweaked the rule since it went into effect in 2003 as new circumstances arise.  

The most recent time it was changed was in 2021, when the NFL “approved changes requiring every team to interview at least two external minority candidates for open head coaching positions, and at least one external minority candidate for a coordinator job.”

So what’s the problem? If the Rooney Rule has changed over the past 19 years, why is Brian Flores just now suing the league?

"God has gifted me with a special talent to coach the game of football, but the need for change is bigger than my personal goals," Flores said in a statement. "My sincere hope is that by standing up against systemic racism in the NFL, others will join me to ensure that positive change is made for generations to come." 

As one of the very few Black head coaches recently fired from the Miami Dolphins, Brian Flores’ lawsuit is about changing attitudes, not rules. The fact of the matter is that anybody can follow a rule, it’s basically checking off a box and then moving forward. This is exactly why Flores is suing the Broncos and the Giants. A Guardian article revealed that both teams had met with Flores only to fulfill the Rooney Rule, and that they had no intention of actually hiring him for the job.

Flores is hoping that this lawsuit will enact real, systemic change within the league. So the league “bringing in experts to look at the Rooney Rule and other policies to see what the league can do to increase minority hiring,” as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said, is just adding more boxes for teams to check off.

No matter how many times the NFL changes the Rooney Rule, it is still just for team owners to check off boxes and keep it moving. The NFL now has five POC coaches after two were fired and two were hired this year alone, but has only one Black head coach. There are teams out there who are interviewing minority candidates, hiring them for an alarmingly short amount of time, and then dropping them. Check. Check. Triple check. 

So, what should happen with the Rooney Rule? An article from The New York Times states that several civil rights leaders are calling for the rule to be replaced completely. The NFL has not come to an agreement on how to move forward with Commissioner Roger Goodell first saying the Rooney Rule wouldn’t be replaced but rather “strengthened.” He later said he would not “take anything off the table” including the elimination of the Rooney Rule.

But even with all this talk about the Rooney Rule since Flores’ lawsuit was filed, at no point did he ever say he wanted the NFL to get rid of it. Because once again, rules and policies were not Flores’ motivation for filing the lawsuit, and changing them or adding more are not what he aimed to accomplish.

One of the matters raised by the civil rights leaders about the Rooney Rule was about punishments for teams who have not been upholding it. An article from NPR states these civil rights leaders specifically asked for “meaningful consequences for teams that do not abide by the rules.” After two decades of amending and re-amending the rule, it may be finally something to consider.

"It's simply not enough for the League to declare its good intentions," NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said. "This is a long-standing crisis that must be confronted with diligence and rigor."

The league can only go so far with adding rewards to the Rooney Rule before considering that punishments for going against the rule may be more effective. This has been discussed in more detail in a CBS article, “If incentivizing these practices is falling far short, then is punishing those who consistently fly in the face of diversity a better means of enacting change?” 

If the rewards aren’t working now, who’s to say they will ever work? The CBS article specifically talked about the idea of having the owners who refuse to hire minority candidates be punished, considering they have the final say and are the only ones who can truly enforce the rule within their team.

As badly as people want the attitudes of the National Football League to change, it won’t happen overnight. But we owe it to Brian Flores and all the other minority coaches/workers who were dropped from the league after a suspiciously short amount of time. The best immediate course of action would be for the league to start implementing repercussions to the Rooney Rule instead of rewards. This way, team owners will not be able to do the bare minimum without suffering severe consequences.   


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