In March 1988, David Cornwell, a young black assistant general counsel for the National Football League, was charged with giving a speech to team owners and executives about the lack of black head coaches in the league. "We could not come at it as a racial issue," Cornwell said ... recalling that he sought the advice of some of the league's talented minority assistant coaches before the meeting in Phoenix. "It was agreed that we'd come at it as a football issue, as a coaching issue and a business issue."
So began Michael Wilbon's front-page article in the Washington Post, published on February 7, 2007, the day Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith established a milestone in the NFL by becoming the first Black head coaches to the lead their teams to the Super Bowl. This journey began long before 2007 and 1988 with the contributions of men such as Tank Younger, Bobby Mitchell, Charles Garcia, Frank Gilliam, Billy Nunn, Dick Daniels, Lionel Taylor, Jimmy Raye, Art Shell, and Denny Green.
The NFL's focus on minority hiring began under Commissioner Pete Rozelle, continued with Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, and remains a priority for Commissioner Roger Goodell. History proves that the NFL is willing to focus on the issue at the highest level. Professional development programs, such as the minority coaches' fellowship program and the executive development programs at Stanford and Wharton Universities, have filled the pipelines with dynamic and eager minority men and women capable of filling every position on the team and league levels. The NFL's Rooney Rule demonstrates that as a matter of policy, the NFL is committed to ensuring that minority candidates are considered for a wide variety of coaching and executive positions throughout the league. Thus, the commitment is present and a dynamic talent pool exists and continues to grow. But, this year's hiring season in the NFL reveals that there is a problem in approach - the perplexing link between scheme and execution.
The Rooney Rule is being applied today in a manner that conflicts with the objective established over 20 years ago. Jerry Gray, a black assistant coach for the Washington Redskins, interviewed for the Redskins' head coach position while Jim Zorn was still the head coach and when nearly everyone in the league believed Mike Shanahan was the Redskins' first choice. It is inappropriate to pass judgment on Mr. Gray's motives because he has an absolute right to advance his professional interests in whatever manner he deems appropriate. But, Mr. Gray did not have a legitimate chance of becoming the next head coach of the Washington Redskins.
The Fritz Pollard Alliance was formed to monitor minority hiring in the NFL and evolved into the clearinghouse for minority candidates. Instead of being the sword that continues a legacy of progress, the Fritz Pollard Alliance has become the shield that sanctions the erosion of progress. By proclaiming that the Redskins complied with Rooney Rule's mandate, the Fritz Pollard Alliance shifted the focus of the minority hiring program and reduced it to a racial numbers game. Interview a single minority candidate, check a box, and then move on. The minority hiring program is supposed to be about getting jobs, not about getting interviews.
The Fritz Pollard Alliance has limited the potential of the Rooney Rule by sanctioning a process where interviewing a single minority candidate is the ceiling as opposed to the floor. If there are 10 "hot" minority candidates in any year, the Fritz Pollard Alliance should advocate for all 10 candidates rather than telling nine legitimately ambitious professionals to stand aside because, "it is not your turn." Proliferation of the west coast offense, zone blitzes, Tampa two coverage, and the wildcat offense are a reflection of the "me too" mentality of NFL teams. This copycat mentality should have given the NFL more minority head coaches to build a legacy on the foundation of the success of Tony Dungy and Mike Tomlin.
Commissioner Goodell was intimately involved in the minority hiring issue when we worked together in 1988 and he remains so today. Commissioners Rozelle and Tagliabue sought and embraced input and counsel from members of the NFL's minority community. As a result, current minority employees have the access, ability and the opportunity to preserve the effectiveness of the minority hiring program by taking a greater stake in its application and in their futures.
The Fritz Pollard Alliance defines progress by last century's standard, when we learned that quotas work for and against you. In response, current NFL minority employees need to turn to the page in NFL history when a group of minority assistant coaches and scouts met with Commissioner Rozelle and won his commitment to make minority hiring a priority in all phases of league and team operations.
Today, as the beneficiaries of the continued commitment of three Commissioners, the NFL's minority employees face a logjam in professional opportunities unless they take ownership of the NFL's minority hiring program and thank and excuse the Fritz Pollard Alliance as the guardian of their futures.