Sports

The NFL has a new proposal to fix the Rooney Rule but it already faces challenges

Key Points
  • The NFL will propose a plan to league owners to receive incentives, including higher draft picks, if teams hire minority candidates. 
  • The plan will also calls for removing permissions that prevent assistant coaches from interviewing for other jobs.
  • League officials tell CNBC all elements of the proposal may not pass but hope owners vote approve some of the measures.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports | Reuters

On Tuesday, National Football League team owners will vote on a plan to overhaul the league's hiring guidelines, which includes incentives that would reward clubs if they hire minority candidates.

CNBC confirmed details of the proposal, which say that if a club hires a minority head coach and general manager, it can potentially move up 16 spots in the third round of the NFL Draft. It will need to be approved by 24 out of the 32 NFL owners to pass.

News of the proposal was previously reported by NFL.com.

The plan attempts to fix shortfalls with the NFL's Rooney Rule, established in 2003, which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for vacant head coach positions. The rule has been criticized as ineffective, as owners have either bypassed it or indicated they don't take it seriously. Critics have also questioned whether minority candidates are given the same time frame to succeed after they're hired.

According to NFL officials who spoke to CNBC about the proposal, the key to the plan is the improved draft picks. The league considers these picks "football currency" to convince team owners to consider more minority candidates, as it can't force hires. 

Rod Graves, executive Director at Fritz Pollard Alliance, said the NFL's diversity has "not been where it needs to be" but credited the league for "addressing the culture of hiring" with this proposal.

Another highlight, according to Graves, is that assistant coaches will no longer need permission to interview for other vacant positions.

"That will have a huge impact on what I believe will be the ability for minorities to move to better opportunities and thereby improve the numbers from a diversity of leadership standpoint," he said.

Graves said the Fritz Pollard group, who advised the league on the proposal, did not consult with league officials about adding compensatory draft picks. But the firm did support including incentives, adding the option is a part of a "more comprehensive plan."

Following the 2019 season, the NFL once again received criticism for not hiring black coaches. Out of the five vacant slots, only one team – the Washington Redskins – hired a minority head coach, Ron Rivera. And following the 2018 season, five black coaches were fired, leaving only four minority head coaches.

Kansas City Chiefs Quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) shakes hands with Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy after scoring a touchdown during the first quarter of Super Bowl LIV on February 2, 2020 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, FL.
Rich Graessle | Icon Sportswire | Getty Imagaes

Also, only two minorities have roles as offensive coordinators, including Eric Bieniemy of the Kansas City Chiefs. Bieniemy, who helped the Chiefs win Super Bowl LIV, was passed over for Rivera's old job with the Carolina Panthers; instead, owner David Tepper instead hired Baylor University coach Matt Rhule, who had no NFL coaching experience. The New York Giants and Cleveland Browns also passed on Bieniemy.

Last season, the NFL received a B-minus overall and B in racial hiring in the University of Central Florida's 2019 Racial and Gender Report Card. It snapped nine consecutive years of getting an A-minus or higher.

Early backlash

Although the new proposal looks to change the hiring landscape, some minority coaches are privately expressing concern. Former NFL head coach Tony Dungy called the proposal "drastic," telling a Pro Football Talk podcast he didn't agree with the plan.

"I just have never been in favor of rewarding people for doing the right thing," Dungy said. "And so I think there's going to be some unintended consequences. To me it's almost like the pass interference rule. Yeah, we need to do something. I don't know if this is exactly it. We need to keep working until we find out what that best thing is to do."

Brian Levy, an agent for NFL and college football coaches, said some of his clients don't agree with adding incentives. He said coaches aren't looking for "head starts" but "they want to know there's a finish line" in the process of elevating in the NFL.

"You don't want to get into a race where you know you're not going to win no matter what you do, and I think that's where we're standing right now," Levy said. If the problem is not resolved, he added the NFL could be at risk of losing talented minority candidates to the college ranks.

League officials tell CNBC they are hopeful elements of the proposal will be approved, including removing restrictions on assistant coaches. But officials are also hoping the vote will lead to more conversations, including ways to establish a "pipeline" to track and develop minority candidates.  

Graves acknowledged the NFL's proposal isn't perfect but said the proposal sparked a serious discussion that he hopes will be a "conscientious decision" to make diversity a priority.

"By making this type of proposal, I recognize that the NFL acknowledges the issue of diversity is an important one, and all resources have to be put on the table for the discussion to improve where we are today," Graves said. "While we have opportunities to get to the table, it doesn't bind the decision-maker to make decisions with respect to a diverse outcome."

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