By Robert J. Romano, JD LLM, Senior Writer
The Rooney Rule is a National Football League policy requiring each of its 32 franchises to interview minority and female candidates for head coaching and other front-office positions when they become available within an organization. Created in 2003 by NFL’s Workplace Diversity Committee, a Committee tasked with creating initiatives to address the historically low number of minorities who have held head coaching positions in the NFL, the rule originally required a franchise to interview at least one diverse candidate before making a new head coach hire. In 2009, the Committee expanded the policyto include general managers and equivalent front office positions, so now teams are required to interview no less than two external minority candidates for these various positions.
In December of 2018, changes were made to strengthen and enhance the effectiveness of the Rooney Rule, with the intention being to “create additional opportunities for diverse candidates by identifying, interviewing, and ultimately hiring coaches of color when vacancies become available.”
The 2018 enhancements to the Rooney Rule include the following:
- Clubs must interview at least one diverse candidate from the Career Development Advisory Panel list, or a diverse candidate not currently employed by the club;
- Clubs must continue best practice recommendations of considering multiple diverse candidates;
- Clubs must maintain complete records and furnish to the league upon the Commissioner’s request; and
- If final decision-maker is involved in the beginning, he/she must be involved through the conclusion of the process.
The Workplace Diversity Committee also endorsed strong accountability measures in the event clubs fail to comply or seek to evade procedures as outlined.
Two years later, in 2020, the Rooney Rule was again revised to reward teams who groomed and developed minority talent internally, who then went on to become general managers or head coaches elsewhere. The modifications specified that if a club lost a minority executive or coach to another franchise, it would receive a third-round compensatory pick each of the next two years. If it lost both a coach and personnel member, then the team would receive a third-round compensatory pick each of the next three years.
Interestingly, in 2021, the NFL’s Workplace Diversity Committee found it necessary to enhance the rule again, this time requiring a franchise to interview no less than two external minority candidates for open head coaching positions and at least one external minority candidate for a coordinator job. In addition, at least one minority and/or female candidate had to be interviewed for any senior level positions within an organization.
Brian Flores Lawsuit Brings Scrutiny
So, after 20 years, and four ‘enhancements’ to the Rooney Rule later, how is the NFL and its franchises doing when it comes to diversity hiring? Well, apparently, not good enough if you ask the ‘passed over’ candidate for both the New York Giants’ and Denver Broncos’ Head Coach position, Coach Brian Flores.
Coach Flores, who was fired after a second straight winning season at the helm of the Miami Dolphins, filed a four-count class action suit against the NFL and its 32 franchises. The federal lawsuit specifically names the New York Giants, Denver Broncos, and aforementioned Miami Dolphins, accusing them of discriminatory hiring practices against black coaches wherein such denies them the equal opportunity and compensation when compared to their white coaching counterparts.
Coach Flores’ complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, claims that “the NFL remains rife with racism, particularly when it comes to the hiring and retention of Black Head Coaches, Coordinators and General Managers.” The lawsuit goes on to state that “Over the years, the NFL and its 32-member organizations . . . have been given every chance to do the right thing. Rules have been implemented, promises made — but nothing has changed. In fact, the racial discrimination has only been made worse by the NFL’s disingenuous commitment to social equity.”
As for the NFL’s Rooney Rule itself, Coach Flores asserts that the “Rule may have been well intentioned . . . but that it is not working because the number of Black Head Coaches, Coordinators and Quarterback Coaches are not even close to being reflective of the number of Black athletes on the Field.” Coach Flores goes on to state that the “Rule is not working because management is not doing the interviews in good faith . . . and are only being done to comply with the Rule rather than in recognition of the talents that the Black candidates possess.”
Because of this lack of good faith by the 32 franchises, and specifically the New York Giants, in the hiring of minority coaches, the causes of action Coach Flores alleges in his class action lawsuit include violations of Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the New York State Human Rights Law, the New York City Human Rights Law, and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.
As evidence, Coach Flores claims that even before his scheduled interview with the New York Giants for its vacant Head Coach position, the team’s ownership already made the decision to hire another coach and disclosed this decision to a third party – that third party being New England Patriots’ Head Coach, Bill Belichick. Therefore, Coach Flores proclaims that his subsequent interview with the Giants’ General Manager, Joe Schoen, was just a pretense, “held for no other reason other than for the Giants to demonstrate falsely to the League Commissioner Roger Goodell and the public at large that it was in compliance with the Rooney Rule.”
Both the NFL League Office and the New York Giants have responded to the lawsuit, with the NFL stating in a simple press release:
“The NFL and our clubs are deeply committed to ensuring equitable employment practices and continue to make progress in providing equitable opportunities throughout our organizations. Diversity is core to everything we do, and there are few issues on which our clubs and our internal leadership team spend more time. We will defend against these claims, which are without merit.”
The New York Giants’ organization, however, has been more ‘aggressive’ in its response, claiming that Coach Flores allegations are “completely false” and that “no decision was made, and no job offer was extended, until the evening of January 28, a full day after Mr. Flores’ in-person interview and day-long visit to the Giants.” As ‘concrete and objective’ proof, the Giants offered the itinerary for the meeting it had with Coach Flores on January 27, 2022, which show the interviewing Coach arriving at the Quest Training Center at 8:45 a.m. to meet with the owners John Mara, Chris Mara, and Steve Tish, and leaving the facility after his time with Joe Schoen at 3:30 p.m.
But even though the Giants believe that its actions were justified and not racially motivated, there can be no argument that Coach Flores’ lawsuit does bring to the forefront the ongoing problem that the NFL and its 32 clubs have regarding race.
From its earliest days, it was a League that sanctioned and approved of both a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that banned black players from participation and an owner, Preston Marshall, who, by all accounts was a deep seeded racist that didn’t integrate his Washington franchise until 1962, and then, only because he was forced to by the federal government. It is a League that blackballed Colin Kaepernick, a young man who protested societal racial injustices by taking a knee during the national anthem, while at the same time allowing a head coach, who exchanged numerous emails with team officials containing racists, misogynistic and homophobic slurs, to be rehired by one of its franchises to a 10-year contract valued at $100 million dollars. It is a League whose concussion settlement deliberately discriminated against its former black players since the payout formula presumed they would have an inferior baseline cognitive function level as compared to former white players. It is a League that obligates its Kansas City team to paint “Advance Social Justice” in its end zone, while at the time turning away and saying nothing when Chiefs fans perform the Arrowhead Chop, an act which in and of itself is racist and dehumanizing to a large section of the American populace.
But most importantly, what Coach Flores’ lawsuit does, in addition to creating awareness about the above, is to bring to the forefront the insincerity, hypocrisy and lack of understanding regarding race by the NFL’s hierarchy. The NFL profits immensely off the talents of minority players, but in the last 20 years since the Rooney Rule was implemented, of the 129 head coaching jobs that have become available, only 15 of them were awarded to black coaches. And for those who are hired, their tenure is much shorter than their white counterparts since, on average, a white head coach has 3.5 years to establish himself, as opposed to only 2.5 for a black head coach. Currently, there are only 4 minority, two of whom are black, head coaches and 6 minority general managers in the NFL. Based upon these numbers, the Rooney Rule, though well intentioned, is clearly not working. And whose fault is that? The NFL owners – because they are the ones responsible for leading their organizations and making the final hiring decisions. It is time for them to hire and retain qualified minority leaders and to establish a culture of inclusion in a League wherein the majority of its labor pool, is 70% minority.
 Named after Dan Rooney, the former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers who was the chair the league’s diversity committee when the Rule was enacted.
 The policy came about, in part, after two African-American coaches were terminated from their positions: Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Tony Dungy, who at the time of his dismissal had a winning record, and the Minnesota Vikings’ Dennis Green, who was fired after his first losing season in ten years with the team.
 NFL Communications Memo dated December 12, 2018, entitled NFL Expands Rooney Rule Requirements to Strengthen Diversity.
 Brian Flores v. NFL Case 1:22-cv-00871 Document 1 Filed 02/02/2022 p. 2.
 Id at p. 13.
 Id. at p. 24.
 Id. at p. 19.
 Id. at p. 111.