What Rooney Wrought
The Rooney Rule and our silly rituals of diversity.

Former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith


Daniel Foster

In 1982, twenty-eight-year-old Tony Dungy became the youngest coordinator in NFL history when he was promoted to coach Chuck Noll’s Steelers defense. In the early ’90s, he produced a top-ranked defense in Minnesota. From 1996 to 2001, he presided over the transformation of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from a perennial laughingstock into the finely honed instrument that made four consecutive playoff appearances under his rule and won Super Bowl XXXVII the year after he left to coach Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. Dungy brought the Colts to the playoffs every year he was there, became the first NFL head coach to defeat all 32 teams in the league, and immortalized the suffocating “Tampa 2” zone defense he had co-created with Monte Kiffin and the Bucs.

When he retired in 2009 to take a cushy analyst gig at NBC, Dungy’s long-time assistant and hand-picked successor, Jim Caldwell, was named head coach. Another former Dungy assistant, Lovie Smith, led the Chicago Bears into the Super Bowl in 2007, where he lost to his old boss. A third former Dungy assistant, Mike Tomlin, went on to become the youngest head coach to win a championship, when his Steelers beat the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. A fourth, Leslie Frazier, is in the middle of turning around the Minnesota Vikings.

All of these men are African-American. And all of them owe at least part of their subsequent success to Dungy, who is also black. Perhaps some owe another share to the so-called Rooney Rule, named after the Steelers owner who proposed that the league mandate the interviewing of at least one minority candidate for certain executive openings. God only knows — and I mean that literally, because I don’t think anyone else can plausibly disentangle hard work, risk taking, and sheer luck (not to mention efforts to find, interview, and hire people with these attributes regardless of race) from the well-intentioned affirmative action of the National Football League.

But just a few years after the success of Dungy’s glory-drenched coaching tree peaked, and was celebrated as marking a racial turning point in this particular corner of American culture, the sports media are aflame with the conviction that the Rooney Rule doesn’t go far enough, offering various proposals to expand it. The proximate cause for renewed concern is the sacking of Lovie Smith (after eight years, an eternity of a tenure in the fickle NFL) and the fact that no minorities were hired for any of the 15 head-coach and general-manager openings at the end of the 2012 season. But all the earnest handwringing obscures what are really several very silly truths about our rituals of diversity, both in the NFL and the culture at large.

First, it reaffirms the unspoken premise that tokenism is not condescension when it is in the service of noble ends. The scarcity of proven NFL coaching talent and the discrete preferences of teams’ management mean that there were almost certainly teams who brought in minority candidates for head coach and GM interviews with little or no intention of hiring them. Lovie Smith and Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton interviewed with at least four different teams. Giants head of college scouting Marc Ross met with at least two teams for general-manager positions, and found the New York Jets’ interest either insincere or undesirable enough to withdraw his name from consideration after an initial interview, even though he was not a sure thing anywhere else (and did not go on to secure a job).

Few other marquee minorities have emerged from the interview carousel, meaning many teams presumably were interviewing undistinguished or unknown minority candidates for top jobs, just to conform to the Rooney Rule. These are suppositions, of course, but that’s part of the problem. Strict hiring quotas encourage organizations to be secretive about their motivations for bringing in minority candidates, reinforcing rather than undermining associations between chromosomes and character. They help ensure that some will be seen as black interviewees, rather than just interviewees.