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The Complicated Reality of the Rooney Rule

I’ve hired a few people over the years. When I made good decisions, it made my life easier and made the company I worked for more successful. When I made bad decisions, I spent the next year worrying about my own job security. So the last thing I wanted was someone else telling me how to make a decision when my career was riding on the outcome.

Which is why I understand the Raiders’ desire to hire Jon Gruden, and that asking them to comply with the guidelines of the Rooney Rule is largely a waste of time. If I was a minority applicant and was invited by the Raiders to interview for their head coaching opening at this point, I would probably not waste my time.

The Raiders are a $2 billion business that has staked much of their value on pulling off a successful move to Las Vegas in a couple of years. More importantly, they are a sports team whose bottom line is measured in wins. They have a nice core of young talent that should continue to jell over the next few years, including a potential franchise quarterback in Derek Carr, in whom they have invested a $125 million contract. In a quarterback-driven league, teams search for guys like Carr as if he were the holy grail. You don’t have to look any further than Indianapolis to see what happens when a great quarterback’s prime gets wasted on the wrong coach.

So if the Raiders have decided that Jon Gruden is the answer to take them to the promised land, they are right to make him their coach. And even when teams comply with the Rooney Rule they end up hiring the same retread white guys the vast majority of the time. So why bother? The numerous comments this week that the rule should either be enforced or abandoned speak to this frustration.

But if the rule is abandoned, there is nothing except faith in the goodness of men’s hearts. Ask Colin Kaepernick how far that goes. There will never be an affirmative action program for hiring coaches, nor should there be. There is too much at stake when a coach is hired to demand that a team take anyone other than the best possible candidate. But there are times when the best potential candidate isn’t part of the network because the people who make the decisions stay within their comfort zone and hire the people they know. Regardless of the merits of the choice, this is certainly the case with the Raiders and Gruden.

For all its flaws, the Rooney rule is the best tool to get around this obstacle. It gets quality candidates through the door where otherwise they would be less likely to do so. Maybe the Raiders don’t hire the guy they give a token interview to in order to comply with the rule. But maybe that guy makes enough of an impression that they remember him in a couple of years when they need a coordinator, and he gets a sincere shot at that job.

Sure, that’s not exactly lightning progress, but it is progress, incremental as it may be. The presence of seven minority head coaches in the league demonstrates. Would that have happened without the Rooney Rule? No one can say for certain. With that said, the eight minority coaches in the 2017 season is one more than the total from the 83 years before the rule was instituted in 2003.

In a perfect world, every hiring decision would be made strictly on the merits; the Rooney Rule would be unnecessary. In the world we live in, where the vast majority of owners are old white guys who spend most of their time with and are thus most comfortable with other old white guys, sometimes doing the right thing requires a nudge. It is also important to note that the absence of signs of outright bigotry does not mean the rule is not necessary because discriminatory outcomes do not require racist intentions. The Raiders, for example, were the first team in the modern era to hire an African-American coach, and the owner who did that was Al Davis, the father of the current owner. So they deserve the benefit of the doubt before ascribing racist intent to their actions.

Hiring Jon Gruden without making a serious effort to solicit minority candidates, though, may not have been racist in its intent, but it was discriminatory in its outcome. And, as anyone who has ever applied for a job knows, the outcome is all that matters.

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