Politics & Policy

Of the Rooney Rule, Classically Black, and other distinctively American outrages

Race, as you know, is on a rampage, storming every redoubt of American life. Have you heard the latest from the NFL?

Toward the end of July, the NFL fined Matt Millen, president of the Detroit Lions, $200,000. His offense? He had hired the head coach he wanted — Steve Mariucci, who’d been sacked by the San Francisco 49ers — without interviewing any black candidates. He’d tried: that is, the Lions had contacted five different black coaches, trying to get them to participate in some sort of interview. But none of those men would agree, because the job was Mariucci’s: It was a foregone conclusion; everyone knew it.

I had a piece on this story in the Sept. 1 issue of National Review. But I’d like to say a little more about it, with your indulgence.

Why’d the Lions even gesture toward those five coaches? Because of a new NFL rule: A team, when it has a head-coaching vacancy, must interview a “minority” candidate, or suffer the consequences. (In this case — as usual — “minority” is merely a euphemism for black. We’re not talking about Vietnamese or Inuit coaches here.) The rule came about in this fashion: About a year ago, two famous “civil-rights” lawyers — Cyrus Mehri and the even more famous Johnnie Cochran, of O.J. notoriety — decided to tackle the NFL. They circulated a document called “Black Coaches in the National Football League: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities.” They said that the league had better come up with more black head coaches, or they would go to court. This was no idle threat: Mehri, for his part, was famed for shaking down two great companies — Texaco and Coke — to the tune of $368 million. (He had claimed race discrimination, a mother lode on a par with “tobacco-related illness.”)

The NFL, jittery, acted, fast: It created a Workplace Diversity Committee — no institution or organization is complete without one these days — and imposed its must-interview-one-”minority”-candidate rule, known as the Rooney Rule, named after Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who was anointed chairman of the Diversity Committee. (Follow all that?) The owners, collectively, seemed relieved to be clear of a lawsuit, and seen to be “doing something.” One owner, however — Art Modell of the Baltimore Ravens — groused a little. If Johnnie Cochran ruled the world, he cracked, “he’d have O. J. Simpson coaching my team.” Modell added, “This is such a competitive business, and we want to get the one guy coaching our teams who can turn the juice [not O.J.] on, regardless of color. And I have a question: Since Allie Sherman coached the Giants in the ’60s, why haven’t there been any Jewish head coaches in the league?”

But never mind. The coaching question, of course, is an important one. Also a vexing one. The NFL is dominated by black players, and yet there are only three black head coaches, out of the 32 teams — which seems a gross imbalance, if you think in racial terms. The NFL has been working to “develop” black coaches: It has a “minority coaching internship program,” and there is a similar program in the European NFL (yes, there is one).

When the Lions’ Millen went to hire his head coach, however, he wasn’t thinking about race or redress. He was thinking about Steve Mariucci, the Peg o’ his heart. The two were old friends, and Millen had long wanted Mariucci at the head of his team. It was an open secret. So when the 49ers dumped him, Millen promptly fired his own head coach (a sap named Marty Mornhinweg) and snapped up Mariucci. But there was that rule: so he felt out those black coaches, who refused to play along, as well they should have. Then he inked his man.

Whereupon a bit of hell broke loose. Cyrus Mehri, the lawyer, said “what Matt Millen has done harkens back to the good-old-boy days.” Jesse Jackson called for the punishment of the Lions. (“Lions Fed to Christian”?) The Detroit City Council — that sanctum of statesmen — unanimously passed a resolution condemning the hiring.

Now, this business of interviewing candidates of a certain color is a tricky one. Gene Upshaw, head of the Players Association, warned of this, way back. He said that, if you mandated something like the Rooney Rule, “it will lead to sham interviews and sham lists [of coaches].” But when Millen hired the coach of his dreams, Upshaw said that he had “treated [the rule] almost as a nuisance.” No kidding! Many commentators have scoffed at “courtesy” interviews, and “going through the motions,” and “dog-’n’-pony shows” — but if they support tokenism — nay, mandate it — what else do they expect? They decry the indignity that a black coach has to suffer when he’s used as a pawn in the satisfaction of a rule — but, again, what else do they expect?

Teams had better interview these black candidates “in good faith,” they say, and “with an open mind”: but how is such a mental state to be determined? Part of Matt Millen’s problem was that he was just too honest — too human, too unslick. In fact, Larry Lee, a former Lions executive — black, if anyone cares — told Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post, “It was Matt’s inexperience in the front office that led him to be so open about [his] desire, when an experienced front-office executive would have kept [it] to himself.” So Millen is penalized, and demonized, for not being a convincing actor in a charade: for saying (essentially), “This is the coach I want, race has nothing to do with it, I’m going to hire him, if NFL teams still have something like freedom of action.”

A few other teams in the league have hired head coaches recently too — white ones. Which is problematic. The commentary is getting a little ugly. The 49ers — the team that had dropped Mariucci — hired Dennis Erickson, a veteran coach at both the pro and college levels. The venom directed at him, and at the 49ers’ decision, was astounding: It was creepily personal, accusatory. It was widely said that he was a “recycled” coach, not fit for the job, an obvious beneficiary of “white skin privilege,” as we used to call it in the good ol’ days of the Panthers (the Black Panthers, not the Carolina Panthers of the NFL). The 49ers had interviewed, among others, Dennis Green, another experienced coach — black, as it happens (or perhaps doesn’t just happen). The Post’s Wilbon said the choice of Erickson over Green was “dumb and also smacks of something more offensive.” Terry Donahue, the team’s general manager, had said that his decision was based on “gut instinct”; but that may not cut it in an increasingly racialized age. Wrote Wilbon, “If [the 49ers] had Erickson in their sights all along and talked to [black coaches] as a show, they violated both the letter and the spirit of the Rooney Rule.” Okay: but how is one to know? How is one to assess the mental posture of NFL owners, presidents, and GMs? Can they be found out in thought crimes, and convicted of them?

In Dallas, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones hired Bill Parcells, an already-legendary coach — but, to comply with the Rooney Rule, he talked to Dennis Green. Jimmy Raye, an assistant coach with the New York Jets, complained, “[Jones] wanted Bill Parcells, and, oh, by the way, he made a call to Denny Green and spent half an hour on the phone with him to act like he was in compliance” — which is “ludicrous.” Well, yes: but is that the owner’s fault, or the rule’s? And will the NFL next mandate a time minimum? An hour, at least, with the “minority” candidate, and in person, not over the phone? As for the genuineness of the Jones confab with Green, we have this important statement from Dan Rooney himself: “Dennis Green said — and we talked to him to make sure — that he was satisfied with the interview he received. Had he taken a different position, we would have taken a different position ourselves.” That is highly interesting. We must assume that if a black coach alleges that an interview was unserious, that will be enough for the Diversity Committee to pounce. A standard like that is ripe for mischief.

NFL hirers are in a helluva dilemma. If they hire a white coach, they may be seen as social villains. If they hire a black coach: applause. But, again, if they pass over the black coach: the deepest suspicion, if not outright boos. Everyone responsible for hiring a head coach is now under a microscope for his very humanity. Next year, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Dick Vermeil will retire — in all probability — and, as Randy Covitz wrote in that city’s Star, the team “could be in the crosshairs of the minority-hiring issue . . . and a target of [Johnnie] Cochran’s.” What if, for example, the club “promotes assistant head coach Al Saunders and gives the impression it did not fairly consider minority candidates”? We’re now in the realm of impressions. Perhaps the brave new social engineers should stop pussyfootin’ around with this interviewing stuff and simply mandate the hiring of black head coaches — a certain percentage of the slots in the league. Say, half. Such a scenario is not unimaginable, for sometime in the future, and it would have the benefit of cutting to the chase.

For me, the racial troubles of the Detroit Lions have a certain poignancy. I’m a Michigander. And Detroit is about the most racially troubled town in America. Long has been.

An infamous and signal event occurred in 1989. In that year, a couple of Detroit reps in the Michigan state legislature threatened to withhold funding for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra unless it hired an additional black player, pronto. (The orchestra had only one.) The DSO — like all other self-respecting orchestras — had always had blind auditions. You play behind a curtain: They can’t see you. They’re not supposed to tell whether you’re young or old, a man or a woman, or whatever.

But that was the problem, as far as the racialists were concerned. So, the symphony extended an offer to a black bassist, who, to his shame, accepted. He said, “I would rather have auditioned like everybody else” — but he didn’t. Black musicians all over the world were outraged; they felt kicked in the stomach, as, in a way, they had been. A black trombonist in the Atlanta Symphony observed, “It doesn’t do any good for players’ self-esteem if they feel the rules were bent for them.” No sh**.

In time, the DSO approached conductor James DePriest to be its music director. (DePriest is black, and, in fact, the nephew of the great American contralto Marian Anderson.) DePriest told them, in so many words, to shove it: “It is impossible for me to go to Detroit because of the atmosphere. People mean well, but you fight for years to make race irrelevant, and now they are making race an issue.”

In May 1996 — my, how time flies! — I did a piece for The Weekly Standard (my then employer) called “Race Notes.” The spur of it was a brochure from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra that announced a subscription series called Classically Black. Would these be concerts featuring the music of, say, William Grant Still? No — that would be offensive enough (to be so labeled). These were concerts in which a black person participated in any way. For example, you have the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, and the mezzo-soprano — who is part of the vocal quartet in the last movement — happens to be black. Hesto presto, that concert is in Classically Black!

Marietta Simpson, in fact, was just such a mezzo-soprano, and I called her up to discuss the matter. She’d had no idea about Classically Black, and she was aghast. Appalled. You could feel her burning, over the phone. “Amazing. Amazing. I was totally unaware of it. That’s totally unbelievable. . . . I think that’s in pretty poor taste. I mean, I can’t imagine that anybody would have to divide the concerts like that. I can understand the need to bring in a varied audience, but there are other ways to do it. To make it appear that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony . . .”

She continued, “I don’t understand why it has to be categorized like that. If there were a Russian vocalist or pianist, would that concert qualify in an all-Russian series? If Russian singers were in the quartet for the Ninth, would Beethoven then be stuck in a Classically Russian series?”

A Black Russian, perhaps!

If you can’t laugh, you gotta . . .

Sports and music are about the purest meritocracies we have: It is talent that rules, not pigmentation. Now, I understand: The evaluation of coaches is much more subjective. Even there, however, it’s so much easier when you judge people as people, and not as racial stand-ins. These racial questions, which pop up in every department of American life, get so dreary, we tire of making the usual points and arguments: What if there’s a half-black coach? Do you have to interview another half-black coach — or another “black black” coach, making one and a half, total — to be in compliance with the Rooney Rule?

And one thinks of another question, with deep roots in the abolition and civil-rights movements (not to mention the Bible): How long, Lord? How long will we bend under a racial storm, until dumb color simply washes away?

Every now and then — a few times a year — I devote this column to a long, long point — or rant, or explication, or essay. And people write in to say, “Hey, that’s wasn’t an Impromptus! Those weren’t impromptus! That was a piece, dude! Why’d you do it under the rubric of your column?”

And the answer, in part — at least the quickest — is, “Just because.” So, for all the carpers: This final, bulleted point is just for you!

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