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One of the architects of the Rooney Rule reflects on its history — and its future

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Super Bowl is next week, and whether you love football or hate it, it is hard to ignore it. The Super Bowl is the largest television event of the year, and football is the most watched sport in this country, which is just one reason the lawsuit filed by Brian Flores, the former head coach of the Miami Dolphins, is sending shockwaves through the National Football League. Flores, who is Black, is suing the NFL and three of its teams, alleging racial discrimination. His complaint states that the NFL is, quote, "managed much like a plantation," unquote, noting the staggering imbalance between the racial makeup of the NFL's players, nearly 60% of whom are Black, and the racial makeup of team owners, management and coaching ranks. As of now, only one head coach among the 32 teams is Black, and no owners are.

This has come up before, and in 2003, the league implemented a policy to address that. It's called the Rooney Rule, after the late owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dan Rooney. And it requires that with a few exceptions, teams interview candidates from historically underrepresented groups for top jobs like head coach or general manager. The idea was that if those in a position to hire and promote were exposed to top diverse talent, they would do so, especially after a study showed Black coaches actually had better records than many white coaches.

But the Flores suit called the Rooney Rule a failure, so we decided to go back to one of the key people involved in the creation of it to get his take. That's civil rights lawyer Cyrus Mehri, who worked with attorney Johnnie Cochran. He said their goal was to level the playing field.

CYRUS MEHRI: What I was looking for is a solution that would be a unifying solution, which was to have an inclusive process as opposed to dictating outcomes. I'm using fair competition as a guiding principle. If you're - this is a game about competition, then you shouldn't be afraid to compete against minority coaches. You should be able to look at who's the best by getting people in the process.

MARTIN: The lawsuit from Brian Flores states, quote, "the Rooney Rule may have been well-intentioned. However, well-intentioned or not, what is clear is that the Rooney Rule is not working," unquote. Flores said more about that when he spoke with Jay Williams on the NPR podcast The Limits and describing his encounter with the Denver Broncos. Flores said he went into it feeling like it was a Rooney Rule interview - those are his words - because, first, he was kept waiting for up to an hour. And then when he was finally called in, it seemed clear his interviewers were unprepared.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BRIAN FLORES: And, you know, this - looked disheveled, looked like they were out of it, a couple of guys in particular. And, you know, I just felt like it was - you know, the decision had already been made.

MARTIN: The criticism is that NFL teams are interviewing minority candidates without any actual intention of hiring them. What do you say about that?

MEHRI: There are a lot of things in the lawsuit that I wouldn't necessarily agree with, and one is the criticism of the Rooney Rule. So it has worked, OK? Just statistically, it has worked over time. So when we built the Rooney Rule, it wasn't just a rule. We built up infrastructure. We built up the Fritz Pollard Alliance to advocate for candidates and for policy changes and would provide a list of what we call the ready list of candidates ready to compete throughout the league. We also - in the first year of it, the league enforced the rule when there was a violation by the Detroit Lions. They didn't have a sincere process because they already had their candidate in mind.

So we had these pillars. So why did it unravel? It unraveled because, in my judgment, one of the pillars was taken out from under the building we built, and that was three to four years ago when the Oakland Raiders made a decision. The owner made a decision to go with Jon Gruden, and the interviews were an afterthought, not even made by the decision-maker. And then when we went to the league, meaning the Fritz Pollard Alliance, and said, you have to put the hammer down, Mark Davis crossed the line, unlike what happened with Detroit in 2003, in 2017, they didn't enforce the rule. What we know from our work - and this is advising companies, litigating against companies, all different arenas - that accountability matters for equal opportunity to succeed.

MARTIN: Let me just jump in for a second. What you're saying is that when the Detroit Lions were found to have violated the rule, they were fined. It was a substantial fine. As I recall, it was a couple hundred thousand - like $200,000. Is that accurate?

MEHRI: Right. Right.

MARTIN: And then subsequently, when the owner of the Raiders was found to have violated a rule, there was no fine.

MEHRI: Well, we - it was obvious they violated the rule, but the league did not enforce it. And the difference is this. When you enforce equal opportunity measures, that sends a message throughout an entire organization. We are serious about this.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, there were nine open head coach positions at the end of the NFL regular season this year. Six of them have been filled by white men. The last three are still open. Is there something that you say needs to happen or that you think based on the facts as you understand them that needs to happen right now to encourage the Rooney Rule to actually do what it's supposed to do, diversify these coaching ranks?

MEHRI: That's where leadership really matters. Leadership is about making sure the process is inclusive and trying to win championships, not just win press conferences. And I think that this is a key moment in the NFL history because it's either going to have to step up, really take this seriously, use the tools that are in place. We've built up a great set of infrastructure. You have people committed to this in the league office that is genuine. But it's up to the 32 sets of decision-makers to really fulfill this.

MARTIN: But how is this - forgive me. Forgive me. How is this a rule if it can be ignored? I mean, if there is no enforcement mechanism, if it's basically up to the goodwill of the people involved, how is that an enforcement mechanism?

MEHRI: Well, what we said in 2003 is if you don't put teeth behind the rule, you will destroy the rule. And we said that again in 2017. They heard us in 2003. They didn't hear us in 2017. So it puts the league in a hole. They have a lot of digging up to do to really make up for that. That one mistake of not putting teeth behind the rule in 2017 is costing - is having an enormous difference because it sends them - it sent a message that it doesn't matter. They need to send a message it does matter and look at the situation now with Flores not as about litigation, but what can they do now in their own house to send a message that this really matters?

MARTIN: That's attorney Cyrus Mehri. He is a founding partner of Mehri & Skalet, and he was one of the key people involved in the creation of the Rooney Rule. Cyrus Mehri, thanks so much for talking with us.

MEHRI: Thank you, Michel - appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.