Rooney Rule is Working to Bridge the NFL’s Racial Divide
The Fritz Pollard Alliance co-founder says it’s an uphill struggle but progress has been made
By: Cyrus Mehri
February 12, 2019
The Undefeated recently conducted an unprecedented poll of NFL fans’ perspectives on race, which shows remarkable support for the Rooney Rule, the requirement that NFL owners interview at least one minority candidate for each head coach or general manager vacancy. The poll reveals that nearly 70 percent of NFL fans somewhat or strongly support the Rooney Rule, while only about 10 percent strongly oppose the rule. While the poll showed a substantial racial divide on the issue of player protest, 66 percent of white NFL fans and 75 percent of black NFL fans support the rule.
NFL fans represent a remarkably broad cross section of America, making them an excellent proxy for the American public at large. The consensus in support of the rule is particularly impressive in this divisive moment in American history.
When Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. and I started on a mission in 2002 to persuade the NFL to adopt what became the Rooney Rule, we tried not only to persuade league executives but to appeal to the better selves of the American people that the rule is just, fair and right. While we received vitriolic backlash, and to a lesser extent still do, our faith in the goodness and fairness of the American people never wavered. Giving people a fair shot to advance themselves resonates broadly and powerfully and eclipses bigoted attitudes.
The Rooney Rule speaks to the best of American values, the idea that hard work creates opportunity and that opportunity should be open to all who cultivate it. The Rooney Rule has never been about telling a club owner whom to hire. It simply propels an inclusive hiring process, enhancing competition through granting top minority candidates an opportunity to make their case directly with the owners and other decision-makers. This increases the prospect of the best and most impactful candidates being hired for the good of the team and good of the game.
By any objective measure, the Rooney Rule has been a success. As the Harvard Business Review recently commented: “There is little doubt that the Rooney Rule brought change to the NFL: It changed the culture and increased awareness about the lack of ethnic diversity at the top of the league.”
In the 16 years before the rule’s enactment, only four minorities were hired to be head coaches. In a 500 percent increase, 22 minority coaches have been selected in the 16 years following the rule’s adoption. The Miami Dolphins selected New England Patriots defensive coordinator Brian Flores as head coach after an extraordinary postseason during which his playcalling shut down one explosive offense after another en route to the Super Bowl LIII title.
As a testament to the power of diversity, 10 Super Bowl teams since 2007 have been led by a minority head coach or general manager: head coaches Tony Dungy, Lovie Smith, Mike Tomlin (twice), Jim Caldwell and Ron Rivera, and general managers Jerry Reese (twice), Rod Graves, and Ozzie Newsome. Five times they became Super Bowl champions.
The success of the Rooney Rule compares favorably to corporate America at large, where only three of the CEOs in the Fortune 500 are African-American. Without an intervention like the Rooney Rule, these numbers will not materially change.
Notwithstanding its successes, the rule faces challenges. Last year, one owner crossed the line by not directly interviewing a minority candidate, and the Fritz Pollard Alliance started a dialogue with the league office to strengthen the rule. In December, the league announced enhanced tools for enforcement and eliminated certain loopholes in the process so the rule could go forward on all cylinders. These reforms will produce dividends in the long run.
The next frontier in creating equal opportunity in coaching is building the pipeline of minority offensive coordinators and quarterback coaches. The historic shortfall in these realms has disadvantaged minorities, as clubs have increasingly sought offensive gurus to become head coaches. It is a large part of the reason we have seen the number of minority head coaches in the league drop from eight to four during this hiring cycle. This offseason, we will be working with the league to develop a systematic means of strengthening the pipeline of minority candidates from top to bottom. This, too, will provide long-term dividends for development and opportunities.
Our experience shows that the struggle to level the playing field requires hard work and dedication. Equal opportunity never comes easy. It’s always an uphill struggle. With the support of the American people, we will move forward with the wind at our back.
Cyrus Mehri is a civil rights attorney in Washington D.C. and co-founder of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a not-for-profit advocating on behalf of minority coaches, front office and scouting personnel in the NFL.
John Wooten: A forgotten activist and hero
Fritz-Pollard Alliance co-founder has fought the good fight since the ‘60s
BY: Harry Carson, Cyrus Mehri, N. Jeremi Duru
May 13, 2019
As John Wooten turns over leadership of the Fritz Pollard Alliance to new executive director Rod Graves, it’s an opportunity to reflect on Wooten’s legacy and his unique impact on pro football. At every stage of his football career — as an All-Pro player, player agent, pioneering front-office executive and Fritz Pollard Alliance co-founder — Wooten has led by example and provided a message of hope.
1960’S PLAYER-ACTIVIST: BREAKING BARRIERS ON AND OFF THE FIELD
In recent years, attention has rightfully focused on NFL players taking activist stands on key issues such as inequities in the criminal justice system. Wooten and NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown, who were best friends, provided a template for this activism in the 1960s.
After a collegiate Hall of Fame career at the University of Colorado, Wooten was drafted in 1959 by Cleveland, which was a perfect landing spot for him. The Browns’ legendary head coach, Paul Brown, had been ahead of the curve in pushing the league to desegregate. In 1946, he signed Marion Motley and Bill Willis, the NFL’s first African American players since the league had expurgated all African Americans, including Hall of Famer Fritz Pollard years earlier.
While most NFL teams had integrated by 1959 (the Washington club resisted until 1962, when pressure from the Kennedy administration forced it to integrate), there was still massive resistance to African American players playing so-called “thinking positions,” such as interior offensive line, middle linebacker and quarterback. One of the most visible and unique “thinking positions” in pro football was being one of Paul Brown’s messenger guards, relaying the plays from Brown and understanding the schemes well enough to explain the plan to teammates in the huddle.
Wooten earned Brown’s trust, becoming the first black messenger guard and, in doing so, becoming a key link in the chain to overcome positional segregation in the NFL. It created an empowering and inspirational message. The beneficiaries? Among others, quarterback James “Shack” Harris, Doug Williams and Warren Moon — the first African American quarterbacks in the league to start a game, win the Super Bowl MVP award and be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, respectively.
During their playing days, Wooten and Brown created the Black Economic Union, which fought for African American empowerment and caught the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When King triumphantly attended the White House ceremony where President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he brought Wooten with him as a trusted player-activist. Wooten has channeled the teachings of King ever since and has helped champion the Fritz Pollard Alliance’s effort to register NFL players to vote.
When Muhammad Ali faced prison time as a conscientious objector during the ill-advised Vietnam War, Wooten organized the leading athlete-activists at the time, including NBA stars Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the NFL’s Brown and Bobby Mitchell, to meet with and support Ali. Playing football was not enough for Wooten. He felt a need to push society to be better.
AN NFL EXECUTIVE WITH AND THREE SUPER BOWL RINGS
While many NFL players end their careers struggling to reinvent themselves, Wooten shot off the field like a rocket. He became an agent and soon won the leading college prospects over with his holistic approach to representation. By 1973, he was the leading agent in the NFL, signing seven players who became first-round draft picks. This is a record that stands today.
Within two years, Dallas Cowboys executives and future Pro Football Hall of Famers Tex Schramm and Gil Brandt recruited Wooten to be on their staff because they recognized he was an extraordinary talent evaluator. Wooten became a scout and discovered overlooked players at small historically black colleges and universities. He soon rose to director of player personnel and became an integral part of the historic Cowboys dynasty of the 1970s that went to the playoffs every year, winning two Super Bowls. Wooten then catalyzed the Cowboys dynasty of the 1990s by orchestrating what many believe to be the greatest trade in NFL history: the Herschel Walker trade to the Vikings for three first-round picks, three second-round picks and a host of other players. With the bushel of draft picks in hand, Wooten pulled the trigger on trading up with the Steelers to land future Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith.
From there, Wooten became vice president of player personnel for the Eagles and, in doing so, became the highest-ranking African American executive in the league at that time. And after success there, sparking the careers of future Super Bowl-winning head coaches Jon Gruden and Sean Payton, Wooten joined the Baltimore Ravens’ front office, where he worked closely with Ozzie Newsome to set in motion the Ravens’ first championship campaign.
Notwithstanding all of his success, Wooten’s most meaningful accomplishment was around the corner.
LEADER OF THE FRITZ POLLARD ALLIANCE
On Sept. 30, 2002, the late Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. and Cyrus Mehri released the ground-breaking report Black Coaches in the NFL: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities. The report revealed, through statistical analysis, that the few African American head coaches in NFL history won far more games and went to the playoffs twice as often as their white counterparts. The report contained a solution: a fair competition proposal mandating that NFL owners agree to interview at least one minority candidate before selecting a head coach.
Wooten helped convince the league that it needed to change and pushed it to implement the fair competition resolution, known now as the Rooney Rule in honor of former Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who became an internal champion of the concept among owners.
That offseason, just after the Rooney Rule was implemented, Wooten called a meeting at the NFL combine for minority coaches, scouts and front-office executives to discuss creating an organization. Ten attendees would have been a success, but people came by the dozens.
Ultimately there were more than 100 people crowded into a small room exploring the concept of an affinity group to advocate for minority coaches, scouts and front-office executives.
The first reaction was that “heads were going to roll” if they pursued such an initiative. Fear filled the room. Then longtime NFL assistant coach Terry Robiskie stood up near the front of the room and declared, “If heads are going to roll, let my head roll,” as he dragged his hand across his throat. Moments later, former NFL defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell stood up and said the same thing. The room that Wooten organized was suddenly filled not only with hope but also with electric energy, and Wooten emphasized, “If we work together, we will never be stopped.” Head coach Tony Dungy concluded by calling on everyone to follow the plan of action.
This meeting gave birth to the Fritz Pollard Alliance, and Wooten rightfully took the helm as chairman. For 15 years, he canvassed his network on every team and developed a Ready List of minority candidates for every football position, from head coach down to entry-level quality control assistant and from scouts up to general manager, tweaking it year-round. He watched every game played every week and assessed the strengths and weaknesses of every team and every front office. Many NFL head coaches routinely called him after games to solicit his critiques, which he candidly provided.
While the Rooney Rule has seen its ups and downs, it has been successful largely because of Wooten’s efforts and has been extended to the front office and to game-day officials, ultimately changing the complexion of the league.
Over the past 15 years, NFL owners selected a minority head coach 22 times, compared with only four times in the previous 15 years. And since 2007, 10 NFL Super Bowl clubs have been led by a minority head coach or general manager, such as head coaches Dungy, Lovie Smith, Jim Caldwell and Ron Rivera and general managers Rod Graves, Jerry Reese and Ozzie Newsome.
The rule has also won over the country, even during these divisive times. An early 2019 ESPN poll of NFL fans reveals that nearly 70% of NFL fans support or strongly support the Rooney Rule and only 9% strongly oppose it, illustrating a rare example of national unity on an issue of race. Moreover, entities as far-ranging as the state of Oregon, England’s Football Association and Goldman Sachs have adopted versions of the Rooney Rule, spreading opportunity around the globe.
None of this would have been possible without Wooten.
The NFL’s highest-ranking African American league executive, Minnesota Vikings chief operating officer Kevin Warren, sums up Wooten’s impact well:
“He has done so much to help so many people in this league. He’s one of those folks who has dedicated himself his entire life to make the game better for everyone involved. If there were a Mount Rushmore for those type of folks, he would be one of the people who would be on the side of the mountain.”
As we in the Fritz Pollard Alliance move forward, we know we cannot replace John Wooten. He is truly irreplaceable. But we also know he has built a strong foundation for us, and America’s Messenger Guard’s message of hope, fairness and equal opportunity endures.
The Fritz Pollard Alliance (FPA) formally introduced the organization's new Executive Director, Rod Graves, earlier this summer. NFL legend and Hall of Famer Harry Carson also took over as Chairman from John Wooten, who retired earlier this year after leading FPA for 16 years.
The following is a statement from FPA Chairman Harry Carson: "I cannot think of anyone better suited than Rod Graves to take over the reins at FPA. I have known Rod for years and have always known him to be thoughtful, fair, and integrity-filled. Rod has worked for multiple NFL clubs, including serving as the Arizona Cardinals General Manager and leading them to a Super Bowl. He has also worked at the League office, serving as Senior Vice President of Football Administration. Rod knows the NFL community inside and out and is extraordinarily prepared to be the FPA's next Executive Director. John Wooten's retirement from the FPA is a big loss, but Rod is the perfect person to lead the FPA forward in our mission to ensure equal opportunity at all levels of the NFL." During his introductory press call, Graves spoke about his new role and vision for the organization.