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20 years after Rooney rule, the NFL landscape is still bleak for Black coaches

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A federal judge said Brian Flores' case against the NFL and three of its teams can proceed. Flores filed a civil lawsuit last year not long after being fired as head coach of the Miami Dolphins. In it, he accuses the league of systemic racism when it comes to hiring coaches, especially head coaches. In her ruling this week, Judge Valerie Caproni wrote, quote, "this case shines an unflattering spotlight on the employment practices of National Football League teams."

Joining me to talk about where the league will go from here is Michael Lee. He's a Washington Post reporter who focuses on the intersection of diversity, gender and how sports shape society. Welcome.

MICHAEL LEE: Hi. Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: Thanks for being here. So you and your colleagues over at the Post have been reporting this extensive series about Black NFL coaches. So I just want to start by asking you, what do you think about this decision in the Flores case? What does it tell us?

LEE: It tells us what's pretty obvious - that the NFL and its owners have no interest in promoting Black leaders into head coaching positions. And the evidence has been there for over a century, but especially in the last five years, where you've seen Black coaches fired quicker and not provided opportunities.

SUMMERS: I mean, look; I feel like you just can't state this enough. This is a league where the majority of players, the labor that powers the NFL, is Black folks, but only a small fraction of full-time head coaches in the NFL are Black. Can you just help us unspool this - unpack how we got to this point?

LEE: You can clearly look at the situation of, say, Eric Bieniemy, who is the now offensive coordinator of the Washington Commanders, who, for the previous five seasons, was the offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs. And he was able to win two Super Bowls, reach three Super Bowls, and he cannot get a head coaching job. The two coordinators for the Philadelphia Eagles, who Kansas City beat in the Super Bowl, were both hired as head coaches. So when you put all that together, you have to ask yourself, what's the issue that the owners have with Black leaders? Because it can't be that they're not successful. It can't be that they're not producing. It can't be that they're not qualified because there's evidence on the field with Super Bowl rings and Lombardi Trophies.

SUMMERS: OK. So let's talk about ownership for a second. I mean, currently 30 of the 32 teams in the NFL are owned by white owners. So to your mind, is part of the answer here to this inequity having, ultimately, a more diverse ownership?

LEE: In theory, that is the case. But again, there are two minority owners, and their coaches aren't Black either. The issue is whoever's in that position, whether it's white or Black - it's what they see as a leader and what they've come across throughout their lives. For a lot of owners, they can't really put together in their mind what a leader looks like - a Black leader looks like because they haven't encountered one throughout their lives. And there's no incentive for owners to make a change because they're not being asked to, and they don't care to. They don't believe that Black candidates are worthy of these opportunities, and it's evidenced in the decisions that they make.

SUMMERS: I do want to ask you about something that's at the center of many of these conversations, and that is the Rooney Rule, which is the policy that requires these teams to interview people of color for head coaching and other senior positions. And it's been around for more than two decades. So is the fact that the situation is as it remains, that these head coaching jobs still remain incredibly not diverse - is it time to rethink the Rooney Rule?

LEE: Well, the Rooney Rule is not working, and that's been evidenced by what's happened over the last decade. The initial years it did actually have an influence, and within, you know, eight years of the Rooney Rule, you had seven Black head coaches in the NFL. And by the end of that season, you had three interim, so you had 10 Black coaches at the end of the 2011 season. But since then, the owners have basically shut the door on providing opportunities for Black coaches, and when they do provide the opportunities, they're given two years, maybe one year, to try to put their imprint on a program. And no one's going to be able to have that kind of turnaround or success. The Rooney Rule for a while was effective, but once you start figuring out a way to work around it and, you know, you start viewing diversity as a burden and not a benefit, which is what a lot of owners have done, it's not going to be effective.

SUMMERS: The Washington Post's Michael Lee. Michael, thank you.

LEE: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.