Exclusive interview with Rooney Rule Architect Cyrus Mehri ...
Ten years ago renowned Washington Equalities Lawyer Cyrus Mehri and the late Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. issued a report entitled ‘Black Coaches in the National Football League (NFL): Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunity’ which challenged the NFL to ‘do better’ on the issue of under-representation of minority head coaches and general managers.
The report documented that the few black coaches who had been given an opportunity in the NFL statistically fared well winning more games and going to the playoffs more often, however despite this they were often last hired and first fired.
Mehri and Cochran came up with a solution to this problem. The premise was simple, encourage clubs to interview more candidates in person and add into legislation that this should include people from minority backgrounds. Championed by Dan Rooney the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers the ‘Rooney Rule’ was brought into effect within the NFL for the 2003 season.
Recruitment Best Practice
Mehri said: “Instead of getting somebody you know, you should strive to get somebody who is the best. The way to do this is to cast a wide net, interview several candidates including people of different backgrounds and including people who are overlooked – both white and black.”
Prior to the introduction of the Rooney Rule it was commonplace for NFL teams to interview only one or two prospects before announcing the appointment of a new head coach or general manager.
Mehri explained: “At that time there were very few minority coaches, there weren’t as many in the pipeline either. However that changed once people had a new mindset to give more people the chance to compete. Critically, the rule does not decide who gets hired.
“All of sudden there has been a dramatic change where not only has there been a record number of minority coaches in the NFL but has also resulted in a record number of black general managers.
“This is reflected at the top level as well. The last six consecutive Super Bowls have had either a black Head Coach or General Manager and in some years there have even been both, so we have really seen success on the field.”
Mehri cites ‘misconceptions’ of the rule as the biggest obstacle faced prior to its successful introduction in the US. This has certainly been reflected in England so far and the PFA has identified a need to establish an accurate representation of the rule in order to further a constructive debate regarding its implementation.
Mehri expanded further: “Some people have the misconception that the Rooney Rule is a quota, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. It is the exact opposite of a quota because it is not saying who should be hired, or the number of people that should be hired. Instead, it is saying just like on the field where you want competition, you want to introduce that same competitive edge into one of the most important (if not the most important) decisions the club has to make – in the appointment of a manager.
“We are not telling people who to hire, we are saying ‘hire the best’.
“The more competitive and transparent process you have the better results you get. A competitive process is central to the Rooney Rule.”
In America conveying this message was pivotal to the perception of the rule both within the NFL but also to the wider public: “People realised that we are not taking anything away from anybody and that the process would actually add more candidates into the mix to compete.
“When they realised this enhanced competition, it turned around how people looked at it”.
Long Term Strategy
One of the counter arguments the PFA has been presented with in England is that if you allow an extended period for an interview process (for example a fortnight) this timeframe could equate to four games (12 points) without a manager in situ. Mehri is dismissive of such a short-term focus:
“In conversations I had with Dan Rooney, he said he simply couldn’t understand why his fellow owners would rush hiring someone into a position that is this important. You want to be inclusive, you want to be deliberative... you want to be thoughtful.”
A hasty decision during the recruitment process can carry costly ramifications for the club. A failing manager can result in a costly relegation or missed promotion, misspent investment on player acquisitions, or ultimately costly settlements when prematurely terminating a manager’s employment contract.
So from a performance point of view, the fan’s perspective and on the balance sheet, it makes sense for a club to be more exhaustive and adopt a thorough, long-term approach.
Benefit for all
Another criticism is the perception that the process will result in ‘token’ minority candidates who can’t compete adequately for a position. However this doesn’t concern Mehri who acknowledges it is common to have front runners, and that many jobs will have a standout candidate from the outset. However he stresses that even if the minority coach is the long-shot, it is still beneficial to do the interview:
“Sometimes a front runner can pull out of the process and all of sudden your long-shot candidate is right there in the mix.
“Secondly people learn from the interview experience and if unsuccessful are better prepared for the next opportunity. For example, right now in the US, one of the most successful unexpected teams doing well this year is the Minnesota Vikings and their coach is Leslie Frazer. He was previously the runner up for the Head Coach position at the Miami Dolphins and had been interviewed at several clubs before being selected.
“In fact almost every African-American Head Coach currently working in the NFL had previously been runner-up for an equivalent position. A great example is Lovie Smith, who was a runner-up candidate before taking over the Chicago Bears and leading his team to the Super Bowl. So it is very common to be interviewed for one club, be a runner-up and then be selected elsewhere at a different point in time.
“The key point is that it is good for everyone to have an inclusive process of interviews because even if the minority manager candidate is not selected, they can learn from the process, they can grow from that process and get new ideas, tips and enhance their reputation.
However Mehri is also quick to point out that this ‘best-practice’ procedure has the same benefits for all candidates, irrespective of race:
“Mike Smith (who is white) was a relative unknown before the Atlanta Falcons appointed him Head Coach as a direct result of the Club casting it’s net wider.
“Critically professionalising the recruitment process and expanding the candidate pool is generating better results for the Club, regardless of whether the chosen Manager is white or black.”
From the PFA’s experience on the ground in England, we were particularly concerned that some black players had a sense of disillusionment prior to taking coaching qualifications due to the perceived lack of opportunity at the end of the process.
Subsequently PFA’s Coach Educator Paul Davis has undertaken fantastic work in increasing the participation of black candidates on the PFA’s coaching courses, with BAME candidates representing an average of 18% of the overall attendance in the last four years (a figure representative of the playing membership).
Mehri speaks from direct experience when he points out that in the longer term, the example set by showing inclusivity and opportunity at the top of the sport incentivises the pipeline at a lower level.
“It is crucial that you demonstrate top-down support. Although we have a different criteria in the US to the UK because there isn’t the qualification system, we are very mindful of developing the pipeline.”
The Next Steps
Mehri concluded: “I feel the Rule’s implementation is in good hands with the PFA and have been really impressed with the leadership of Gordon Taylor, Bobby Barnes and Paul Davis. Gordon initially invited me over to speak with all the major stakeholders and top officials a year ago, he opened the doors and let me be an informational resource. Their collective level of commitment at the PFA to the implementation of the Rooney Rule is clear."
“Recently Deputy Chief Executive Bobby Barnes has re-visited Washington to discuss progress and get more information, so I think they have learned what they can and will continue to tackle the uphill climb. No-one said this would be easy, or that it would happen quickly, but they need to try and reach a consensus so that this will be implemented step by step.”