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Jennifer King, the first African-American female full-time coach in NFL history, is an alumna of the NFL Women's Careers in Football Forum. (AP/Mark Tenally)

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Education and Experience

ESTABLISHED IN 2003, THE ROONEY RULE requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operations opportunities.

Cyrus Mehri, counsel to the Fritz Pollard Alliance and an advocate for minority coaching opportunities, discusses the impact of the Rooney rule in the NFL and the progress it has created on the NFL Network’s Total Access with Rich Eisen.

Dave Anderson of the New York Times commented that the Rooney Rule provides African American candidates a fairer shake. He said:

“It didn’t come easy, diversity never does. But at last, the National Football League has sharpened the teeth of its guidelines to provide at least a fairer shake to African-Americans who aspire to be one of its 32 head coaches.”

In 2005, The Washington Post quoted Executive Director Harry Carson within an article on how minority coaches have made the most of their opportunities which may open the door for others:

“I think the best way to show that minority coaches can get the job done is by looking at the coaches out there right now who are getting the job done,” said former Giants linebacker Harry Carson, executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the organization formed two years ago to increase minority hiring in the NFL in the wake of the original Mehri/Cochran report.

“It’s all the Alliance is trying to do – keep the playing field level and give minority coaches the opportunity so that they are not lost in the shuffle. When you have guys like Tony Dungy, Lovie Smith and Marvin Lewis doing exceptionally well, I think that’s the best advertisement you could ask for.”

Carson said the Pollard Alliance has never had a specific target number for minority head coaches, but indicated there are plenty of qualified candidates for any of the next wave of vacancies.”

“We’re not looking to take over the league, he said. “But there have been so many guys overlooked for so many years. That’s why we’re here – so guys who don’t have a voice can make a little noise and get their names out there.”

This season, Mark Maske of the Washington Post wrote:

The first Super Bowl matchup of teams led by black coaches is the culmination of a four-year push by people inside and outside the sport to open doors to minority coaches that have been closed for most of the NFL’s history.

Cyrus Mehri said he is pleased with the changes the league has made to improve diversity in its head coaching ranks. “I think you have to look at it as a great success… You know it’s a great success when it matters to the owners. From a process point of view, they’re doing everything we asked them to do. Now does that mean we’ve eradicated bias in the NFL? No. It’s part of America. But we’ve made great strides. We couldn’t have written a better script.”

The leaders of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the group spawned by the efforts of Mehri and Cochran, who died in 2005, and named for the first black in NFL history, have always said they didn’t want to tell the owners which coaches to hire. They simply wanted to create interviewing opportunities, they said. But those opportunities led to jobs.

“Everything we’re doing has exceeded our best expectations,” Mehri said. “We really have had a cultural change. We don’t win every time. We shouldn’t win every time. But everyone is following the process.”

The sports term “statement game” has a new definition for Sunday’s Super Bowl XLI wrote Jarrett Bell of USA Today. The game’s legacy will come not from its outcome but from its outset – when the Indianapolis Colts’ Tony Dungy and the Chicago Bears’ Lovie Smith take the sidelines as the first African-American head coaches to stand one victory from the NFL championships.

John Wooten, chairman of a group that monitors and promotes the hiring of minority coaches in the NFL, says the buzz surrounding Dungy and Smith is reminiscent of what he experienced as a youth in the 1930s and 1940s.

“Since the (conference) championship games, for a lot of black people in this country – waiters, hotel domestic workers, businessmen, bus drivers, people in barbershops – it has gone back to the Joe Louis days, says Wooten… When I was a little boy, wherever he fought, I was with Joe Louis. People who care less about football will be watching the game.”

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who under predecessors Tagliabue and Pete Rozelle was a key administrator in implementing a program that increased exposure for minority candidates, believes mainstream America should applaud this Super Bowl as much as African-Americans do.

“I know I do,” Goodell said. “After the (conference) championship games, I could barely sleep. I was so excited about it… But the progress has to continue. It can’t stop.”

Without question, tremendous progress has occurred over the past four years since the adoption of the Rooney Rule. The number of African American head coaches jumped from two to seven. With the help of the written guidelines, recent hiring cycles proceeded smoothly, with a record number of meaningful interviews for minority candidates. During 2003, the Commissioner added an enforcement provision to the Rule. We also now have a record number of minority coordinators, which help build up the pipeline.

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