It was considered major news four years ago when Lovie Smith's Chicago Bears squared off against the Indianapolis Colts, coached by Tony Dungy. It was the first time an African American coach - in this case, two black coaches - had led an NFL team to the Super Bowl.
Now another black coach, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, leads a team that will face the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl, the seventh time in the last 10 years that a team with a black head coach or general manager has reached the game. Next season, there will be eight minority coaches in the NFL, including seven African Americans. Of the four teams competing in the NFC and AFC championship games this season, two were coached by African Americans. That's a long way from 2002, when Dungy and Herman Edwards were the only black head coaches in the NFL.
How did the NFL make such dramatic progress?
Everybody points to the "Rooney Rule," named in honor of Steelers owner Dan Rooney, the chairman of the NFL owners' diversity committee. The rule requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for every head-coach vacancy. It was put into effect after two lawyers, Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., authored a report in 2002 documenting that African American NFL coaches were held to a higher standard than white coaches, even those with losing records.
The report found that the five blacks who had coached during the modern era routinely outperformed white coaches. In their first year, they averaged 2.7 more wins, even though they had inherited less successful teams. And when they were fired, they had won an average of 1.3 more games than white coaches who were dismissed.
Since 1920, the NFL has hired more than 400 head coaches. Of those, only six (a little more than 1 percent) were African Americans, the report noted. Although nearly 70 percent of the players in the NFL were black, only 6 percent of the head coaches and 28 percent of the offensive and defensive coordinators, often stepping-stone jobs to becoming a head coach, were black.
After the report was presented to NFL owners, with the implicit threat of litigation, they accepted the recommendation that a person of color be considered for each head-coach opening.
"Today, there are eight minority coaches - three hired this season - both of which are records. We went from zero black general managers to five. The guys who have gotten the opportunities have been a smashing success," Mehri said. "In the last five Super Bowls, there were five black head coaches. There have been two black general managers - Rod Graves of the Cardinals and Jerry Reese of the Giants. None of this would have happened but for the Rooney Rule. . . . What more powerful message can we send to this country than diversity is the key to success?"
The lessons of the NFL can be applied in non-sports settings, according to N. Jeremi Duru, a Temple University law professor and author of Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL.
"What we have seen is that when you have that environment created by the diverse candidates slate, oftentimes you've got candidates that wouldn't have gotten a shot," he said. Duru cited Tomlin as an example.
"The Steelers have taken to heart this idea that you look far and wide," Duru explained. "You don't just look at what's in front of you, where you see Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm" - assistant Steelers coaches considered the leading candidates to succeed Bill Cowher as head coach when he retired.
"Tomlin was one of the people they took a look at."
The look paid off. Tomlin took the Steelers to the playoffs in his first year, won the Super Bowl in his second season, and is in his second Super Bowl in three seasons.
Duru said expanding the pool of candidates to fill vacancies was a nonthreatening approach to diversity.
"There's no quota system in it," he explained. "It's just that one person gets an interview. There's no hiring mandate. Indeed, among interviewees, there's no requirement that there be only four candidates, one of whom must be of color. You can interview as many as you want. Therefore, there's no individual that's being excluded because this person of color is being included. There's nothing unfair about it."
Such an approach, he said, fosters a fairer workplace.
"If you explore a situation of one of those teams - take the Bears with Lovie Smith, or Mike Tomlin of the Steelers - you can see that you have expanded opportunity and gotten better," Duru said. "If you can do that in corporate America and you get a CEO you wouldn't have thought about and suddenly your profits are up, productivity is up, and inefficiency is down, I think pretty much anybody except a staunch racist would realize the benefits that flow from broad-minded thinking."
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