Black NFL employees are counting on commissioner Roger Goodell to do the right thing. After an offseason in which he led the NFL’s efforts to address its deplorable record on inclusive hiring and even affirmed that “Black lives matter” while apologizing for the league’s missteps during the protest movement, Goodell faces a credibility test. There’s really no other way to frame it.
The NFL is investigating whether its Washington franchise flouted the expanded Rooney Rule twice in as many days with the rapid-fire hires of high-ranking executives Terry Bateman and Julie Donaldson. At issue is whether Washington complied with the portion of the rule approved by owners amid great scrutiny on May 19, requiring clubs and the league office to interview “minorities and/or female applicants” for positions such as team president and “senior executives in communications, finance, human resources, legal, football operations, sales, marketing, sponsorship, information technology and security positions.” Simply put, the league now mandates that owners, or those they empower to make hires, must interview a female candidate and a non-white candidate among a diverse slate of candidates in filling all business-operations positions covered by the rule.
Several Black NFL club officials told The Undefeated it beggars belief that Washington conducted legitimate processes, checking all the required boxes to achieve compliance, in hiring Bateman as its new executive vice president and chief marketing officer and Donaldson as its senior vice president of media. What’s more likely, according to several current and former league officials familiar with Washington’s inner workings, is that owner Daniel Snyder moved quickly in response to dual crises — the embattled franchise is undergoing a renaming process and reeling from a report in The Washington Post in which 15 women who previously worked for Washington’s franchise alleged sexual harassment by then-Washington staffers — going directly to two people with whom he is both familiar and comfortable to help him allay fans’ concerns on the eve of the season.
If that is, in fact, what occurred, that’s a major problem for the NFL.
And here’s what’s at stake for Goodell: potentially crushing the hope he has inspired among many Black NFL employees that the league is finally serious about leveling the playing field in hiring. It’s important to understand how much Goodell has invested in trying to improve the hiring landscape, especially over the past six months. Assisted by Pittsburgh Steelers team president Art Rooney II, chair of the NFL’s workplace diversity committee, and Troy Vincent, the league’s executive vice president of football operations, Goodell has made it clear both publicly and privately that the NFL must do better with hiring. Each year during the NFL scouting combine, league officials and leaders of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the independent group that advises the league on matters of diversity and inclusion, meet to discuss the previous hiring cycle and potential options to strengthen the Rooney Rule, named after Rooney’s late father, Dan. This offseason, there were more meetings than usual and a greater sense of urgency that change is long overdue, said people involved in the discussions.
The NFL will begin the 2020 season with only four Black or Latino head coaches and two Black general managers. The league has never had a Black team president. In the past three hiring cycles, there have been 20 head coach openings, but only one coach of color has been hired in each cycle. Goodell was so concerned about the numbers, he backed a controversial proposal that would have tied improved draft position for teams that hire minority candidates as head coaches or general managers. (The proposal was shelved.)
Make no mistake: If the expanded rule produces the positive change that frustrated Black executives and coaches desire, they will have Goodell to thank for standing on a table and exhorting his billionaire bosses to step up. It’s also hard to overstate the importance of Goodell’s support for the league’s efforts in social justice. He drove the bus on the NFL’s historic partnership with the Players Coalition and has continued to push to expand the league’s funding of grassroots organizations doing significant work in criminal justice reform and other areas to benefit victims of systemic racism. As previously mentioned, Goodell has apologized for past mistakes the league made with regard to the protest movement ignited in 2016 by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and those mistakes will always be part of Goodell’s ledger, too.
People on the other side of the table on both hiring and social justice — including Rod Graves, the Fritz Pollard Alliance’s top decision-maker, and Anquan Boldin and Malcolm Jenkins, co-founders of the Players Coalition — have praised the commissioner for the appetite he has displayed to truly become educated about issues, sharing anecdotes about Goodell’s unpublicized fact-finding missions and their private conversations that convinced them he’s an ally in the fight for what’s right. Does Goodell really want to risk squandering all of that?
Repeatedly in the past, the league looked the other way when violations of the Rooney Rule occurred, many Black team officials strongly believe. The officials maintain that sham interviews have been baked into the process. Things, though, are supposed to be different now because of the nation’s ongoing reckoning on racism, primarily inspired by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, and the NFL’s stated desire to be an agent for positive change. Heck, before each game during the league’s kickoff week, “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing,” traditionally known as the Black national anthem, will be performed live or played. That’s about the NFL trying to show it finally gets it. Although we can debate the significance of the gesture, it’s a gesture nonetheless.
Some may take exception to examining this issue exclusively from the perspective of the Black NFL community, considering the Rooney Rule covers all people of color and women. As well it should. But let’s be real: The NFL has never been Blacker. The league’s on-field workforce is more than 70% Black. Of the 32 players selected in the first round of the 2020 draft, 29 are Black. Black quarterbacks now set the league’s agenda, and the best among them, Kansas City Chiefs wunderkind Patrick Mahomes, is the new face of the NFL. What Goodell decides will resonate loudest with Black folk.
Fans of the Washington franchise also are watching closely. They’d point out that Washington head coach Ron Rivera was the only minority head coach hired during the previous cycle, that coaching intern Jennifer King is the first full-season Black female coach in the NFL and that Donaldson, according to the team’s news release to announce her hiring, “will be the first female to be a regular on-air member of an NFL radio broadcast booth.” In terms of inclusive hiring, all of that is impressive and important. It’s also irrelevant to the matter at hand.
Unfortunately for Goodell, Snyder, yet again, has put him in a horrible position. But as the saying goes, if you’re going to talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. Like never before, Goodell must walk it.