When it comes to diversity in the NFL, nepotism trumps the 'Rooney Rule'

The father-and-son tradition of pro football means merit is often a secondary consideration in hiring

April 01, 2013|By Jason Maloni and Alexander Diegel

This NFL offseason represents the 10-year anniversary of the inception of the "Rooney Rule." The rule, named after Pittsburgh Steelers' Chairman Dan Rooney, requires teams to interview minority candidates for all head coaching and senior football operation positions. Initially, the rule showed some signs of success, but the coaching moves from this offseason have even Dan Rooney's son, Steelers' President Art Rooney II, wondering "whether we are really reviewing minority coaches in a satisfactory manner."

The younger Mr. Rooney's comments come after a hiring period in which eight coaching vacancies, precisely one quarter of the league, were filled by white men, leaving the total number of minorities in head coaching positions at just four: The Steelers' Mike Tomlin, the Minnesota Vikings' Leslie Frazier, the Cincinnati Bengals' Marvin Lewis, and the Carolina Panthers' Ron Rivera.

It seems a given that coaches should be chosen solely on merit, but it is hard to ignore other connections that appear to open doors for today's coaches. Given the consistent trend of coaches hiring their sons, brothers and nephews to assistant coaching positions, there is reason to question whether a culture of nepotism is hurting the chances of minority candidates.

Take a look at the Baltimore Ravens, for example, where 23-year-old Jay Harbaugh is working for his uncle, John. Jay got his start as a coaching intern under his dad, Jim, head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Is it old boy politics or simply a product of the connections and contacts that are present in every industry around the globe?

Skeptics will say it's certainly the old boy network in full glory. While the sports industry is hardly alone in its embrace of the "who-you-know system," it seems NFL coaches have made it standard operating procedure.

The Ravens are hardly the only team that seems to combine family reunions with job fairs. Rex and Rob Ryan (sons of Buddy) hold down the coaching jobs with the New York Jets and New Orleans Saints. Legendary Dolphins coach Don Shula hired his son, Dave, in 1982, and within a decade, he was head coach of the Bengals. Dave's younger brother, Mike, is now offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers. Father-and-son duo Bum and Wade Phillips have been head coaches for five NFL teams between them, and now Wade's son, Wes, is the tight ends coach in Dallas. But that's just the beginning.

•This offseason the Washington Redskins hired former San Diego Chargers' General Manager A.J. Smith, father of 'Skins scout Kyle, to the front office. The Redskins are coached by Mike Shanahan, whose son Kyle is the team's offensive coordinator. All these men are under the employ of General Manager Bruce Allen, son of Hall of Fame coach George Allen.

•Bill Belichick hired his son Steve in the fall of 2012 as a coaching assistant. Steve had played one year of Division I football as a long snapper in his senior season for Rutgers.

•When Brian Billick was with the Ravens, he hired his brother-in-law Mike Smith, now the Falcons' head coach, straight out of Division II Tennessee Tech.

•Kansas City Chiefs Coach Andy Reid has his son Britt in charge of "quality control."

•When Jim Fassel was an offensive coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens, he hired his son John to his first NFL position as the team's assistant special teams coach.

•When Mike Tice was with the Minnesota Vikings, he hired his brother John to be an offensive assistant. It was John Tice's first NFL job, and he has not had another one since Mike left the Vikings.

•When Nate Carroll graduated from USC, his father Pete hired him to be an assistant with the Seattle Seahawks where Pete was head coach.

Nepotism is certainly not unique to pro football, and many of these jobs are internships or low-level, low-paying positions borne with little impact to the bottom line. The real sin is that NFL franchises are sacrificing opportunities for more deserving candidates so that a head coach, GM, or scout can hand a dream job to a family member.

American University's Washington College of Law Professor N. Jeremi Duru, author of 2011's "Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL," says this practice creates a networking disadvantage and robs a generation of minority candidates of valuable experience.

"There are inadequately credentialed folks coming in under their dad," says Mr. Duru. "It's important to have people you trust, who you know will have your back. You may be getting that sort of loyalty, [but] you may be suffering with respect to other important parts of the job, which is competence overall."

The institution of the Rooney Rule was a step in the right direction, but the NFL can do more to level the playing field. Here are two ideas:

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