INDIANAPOLIS — During the NFL scouting combine last week, high-ranking league officials and leaders of the Fritz Pollard Alliance had multiple meetings about the poor state of inclusive hiring at the club level. With their talks finished, now the wait begins to see whether new hiring policies are implemented.
Both publicly and privately, commissioner Roger Goodell has expressed his desire to improve diversity in team management from the front office to the field. Goodell’s dissatisfaction with the status quo set the tone for the gatherings, league sources familiar with the talks said, and there’s an expectation among team employees of color that change, on some level, could be on the horizon.
In interviews with The Undefeated, more than 10 player-personnel officials and assistant coaches in town to evaluate players said that, after the past three hiring cycles and the widespread criticism the NFL has faced, it would be both stunning and highly disappointing if no new proposals came out of the meetings. Of the 20 openings for head coaches in that span, only one coach of color has been hired in each cycle.
One after another, the black player-personnel officials and assistant coaches interviewed at the combine said that there’s clearly a lot wrong with how jobs have been filled for some time now, because qualified people of color aren’t getting opportunities to climb the ladder. It’s a topic of discussion when they gather at events such as the combine and the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. They’re frustrated about where things stand and feel powerless to do anything about it.
A few, though, offered a bit of optimism, saying things feel different, noting the increasingly intense media focus on hiring in the NFL. To their point, much more than usual went into the meetings, multiple sources said. Although the league and the alliance, the independent group that advises the NFL on matters of diversity, meet annually during the combine to review the previous hiring cycle and propose ways to strengthen the guidelines that all teams must follow when filling positions under the Rooney Rule, there seemed to be an increased sense of urgency in the talks.
The consensus on both sides of the table is that Goodell needs more buy-in from club owners to effectuate new policy. It appears he has a strong ally in Pittsburgh Steelers team president Art Rooney II, who is in his first year as the head of the diversity workplace committee.
Back in January, Rooney was straightforward in an interview with the NFL Network, saying, the league “is not where we want to be, not where we need to be.” Behind closed doors, Rooney hasn’t let up, and the powerful team of Goodell and Rooney could be what’s needed to push reluctant owners to take steps besides the Rooney Rule.
In place since 2003 for head coaches and expanded in 2009 to include general manager jobs and equivalent front-office positions, the rule, named after Rooney’s late father Dan, former Steelers chairman and the onetime head of the league’s diversity committee, mandates that an NFL team must interview at least one minority candidate for these jobs. In an attempt to strengthen the rule, the league made revisions in 2018.
The time has come, however, to think beyond the rule, several of the officials and assistant coaches interviewed at the combine said. If the rule were enough, they contend, the problems of the last three hiring cycles would not have occurred.
Among many coaches of color, there’s still palpable anger about the owners’ decisions to pass over Leslie Frazier, Eric Bieniemy and Robert Saleh, widely admired coordinators with the Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers, respectively, this cycle in favor of white coaches with lighter NFL resumes. Bieniemy helped the Chiefs win their first Super Bowl championship in 50 years. Saleh, part of the San Francisco staff that lost in the Super Bowl, is the leader of a defense that formed the 49ers’ foundation.
It’s doubtful that there will be any news about new hiring guidelines at least until the annual league meeting at the end of March. The spring league meeting occurs in May.
The first part of addressing a problem is admitting you have one. The NFL is there. Now, the league must move to solve it while employees of color watch closely.