Reckoning With The NFL's Rooney Rule
GENE DEMBY, HOST:
Just a heads-up, y'all - this episode contains some salty language. So, you know, there's going to be some cussing.
What's good, y'all? You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby.
LORI LIZARRAGA, HOST:
And I'm Lori Lizarraga. It's Super Bowl season, Gene. We are recording this before the game, so...
DEMBY: Yes, it is.
LIZARRAGA: ...Congratulations. And good luck to your Philadelphia Eagles.
DEMBY: Thank you, sis. I appreciate you so much.
LIZARRAGA: (Laughter) And this will come as no surprise to you, Gene, but it's pretty lit in Philly right now.
DEMBY: Oh, I believe it.
LIZARRAGA: I mean, an Eagles Super Bowl on the back of a Phillies World Series?
DEMBY: Lori, stay safe out there. Like, I know people in Philly don't know how to act. Like, ugh.
LIZARRAGA: (Laughter) No light pole is safe, Gene.
DEMBY: (Laughter) I was there in Philly in 2018 when the Eagles finally won the Super Bowl. It was...
LIZARRAGA: Oh, wow.
DEMBY: ...Chaos. Like, it was one of the best nights of my life. We were walking down Broad Street, me and my wife and my friends, and it felt like the whole city was having this cathartic moment, like finally. There was a couple having sex on top of a car.
LIZARRAGA: Oh, my gosh.
DEMBY: (Laughter) And my wife, you know, is a football fanatic, too. Like, she's a 9ers fan. I'm so sorry, baby. I'm sorry to bring it up. And football was, like, a really big part of our early dating life.
LIZARRAGA: Aw, Gene.
DEMBY: Yeah. But, you know, like, it's football. It's very weird. Like, when the Eagles won five years ago, I felt a kind of relief. Like, now we got the chip, right? Like, I can release myself from the agony, and now I don't have to keep holding my nose and contorting myself to watch this messed-up sport and supporting this janky league. Like, and even still, this year, you know, as both of our teams were doing really good, like, my lady and I both started slowly peeking over the fence to see what was good, and we got sucked back in.
LIZARRAGA: I think a lot of football fans have a complicated relationship with the sport, especially, like, after seeing such brutal injuries play out on the field every year. This season has been no exception.
DEMBY: Right. And it's not like the NFL needs more people chattering about them this week, but this episode is about football.
LIZARRAGA: Super Bowl LVII, but make it CODE SWITCH?
DEMBY: (Laughter) For sure, for sure. In this episode, we're talking about who gets to call the shots, who takes the hits and what the NFL can tell us about why corporate diversity plans fail. And to get into all this, Lori, I want to introduce you to Domonique Foxworth.
DOMONIQUE FOXWORTH: I played cornerback. It is the Blackest position in all of professional sports.
DEMBY: These days, Domonique is a commentator and writer for ESPN. But before that, he played for the Broncos, the Falcons and the Ravens.
FOXWORTH: I remember quite clearly, in the first grade, telling my dad I wanted to be a professional football player. And the idea of being a professional athlete was absurd, and he knew that. But in general, talking to a first-grader, you don't blow up their dreams.
DEMBY: His father was more of a hoops head, a big Tar Heels fan.
FOXWORTH: He was like, yeah, what about basketball? I was like, no, the soft kids play basketball, was my response to him, which was dumb as hell, but, like, yeah, no, that's what the soft kids do. I play football.
LIZARRAGA: OK. So he was like, I want to run fast, and I want to run fast into people.
DEMBY: Yeah, basically.
FOXWORTH: I'm only 5'11", so basketball wouldn't have worked out, anyway.
DEMBY: Now, Domonique was from the Baltimore area, so when he started playing football when he was little, all his teammates were Black. So were all his coaches.
FOXWORTH: I had Black coaches until high school. So I grew up in Randallstown, and the local high school was not somewhere that my mom wanted me to go to when we didn't have private school money. So she sent me to a magnet school called Western Tech. But that was the first white coach I had.
DEMBY: Domonique was a really, really good high school player, so good that his school retired his jersey number while he was still a senior in high school. He got a scholarship to play football at the University of Maryland. And in college, the whole, you know, football apparatus was just a lot bigger. There were more coaches on the staff, more players, and the coaching staff was just a lot whiter.
LIZARRAGA: That tracks. So what does that mean for the player-coach relationship?
DEMBY: He said it was, like, a whole different energy.
FOXWORTH: It's funny because you - we know all the, like, mythology around coaches being mentors and parental figures and you being a part of a team. And I think, like, all that was true for me all the way up and through high school. And it felt true even when I got to college.
LIZARRAGA: Right. Like, one big difference is that in college, the coaches' livelihoods start to depend on how well players like him performed.
DEMBY: Yeah, in so many ways, right? Like, Domonique said, OK, the year before he got there, Maryland was garbage.
DEMBY: But during his freshman year, they had this dramatic turnaround. Like, they made it all the way to the Orange Bowl.
LIZARRAGA: Hey, good for them. Did they win?
DEMBY: Oh, no. Not at all.
FOXWORTH: We got smashed by Florida.
LIZARRAGA: Oh, my gosh. Ouch.
DEMBY: (Laughter) Yeah. And that L wasn't the only smack in the face they got from that game.
FOXWORTH: Then we came back home from the Orange Bowl, and all the coaches had new Cadillacs, and we had a bag of sweatshirts that said Maryland Terps Orange Bowl. And...
FOXWORTH: ...I mean, I guess I knew it before, but it was the first time it was, like, in your face that the relationship has changed.
DEMBY: The next year, he said, they were even better. They made it to another bowl game, the Gator Bowl. And this time...
LIZARRAGA: They won?
DEMBY: ...They destroyed their rivals, West Virginia. They stomped them.
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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: An impressive performance by Maryland's offense, defense and special teams. And once again, they dominate their border rival, West Virginia, winning this one by a 41-7 count.
FOXWORTH: And then our coach went on a bunch of NFL head coaching interviews, and he used those interviews - as I'm sure any sports fans know - to leverage contract extension with more money out of the team that he was on.
DEMBY: These were mostly Black players who were doing all the drills, doing the weightlifting, the running, the throwing, doing the hitting and getting hit. They were the ones who developed the injuries that they had to spend all this time rehabbing from. And when they won that Gator Bowl, the players got sweatshirts.
LIZARRAGA: God, again with the sweatshirts.
DEMBY: Right? And also, that's just, like, corny-ass reward. Like, you can't wear a 2004 Gator Bowl champion sweatshirt for more than maybe two or three months before it starts to get a little weird. Meanwhile, his coaches were getting job offers that would have made them rich.
LIZARRAGA: Yeah. You can't drive a sweatshirt.
DEMBY: Yeah (laughter). But Domonique was a star. Like, he was one of the team's leaders, so the coaches treated him pretty good. And unlike most of his teammates, he had a really good chance of going to the league, of realizing his dream of playing pro football. When he was done with college, he had one last hurdle, and that was the NFL Scouting Combine.
LIZARRAGA: Explanatory comma time. And you know I know sports, Gene.
DEMBY: Of course.
LIZARRAGA: But just in case there's anyone Googling the NFL Combine, like I absolutely did not have to do, me, personally...
DEMBY: Of course.
LIZARRAGA: ...The Scouting Combine is this big, weeklong event held every year where college players who, you know, dream of making it to the pros essentially try out for teams around the league ahead of the NFL draft.
DEMBY: And this is the NFL we're talking about. So the Combine becomes a big media event in its own right, a way for the NFL to pump out some pro football content during the offseason. So, you know, you turn on your TV, you watch these NFL hopefuls go through drills to test their agility and their speed and how well they can catch and run routes and sprint the 40-yard dash. Like, the 40-yard dash is, like, the big thing now. And there's TV commentary throughout the whole thing.
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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: Just so clean getting out.
UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #3: Four two nine. All right. Oh, the fans dig it.
UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: Oh (laughter).
DEMBY: And this is all happening in a giant, NFL stadium. The players who are going through all this are wearing jerseys but with no names on them, just numbers. And it's kind of creepy. The racial dynamics - and these are mostly Black and Brown players, while the clipboard holders are mostly white - it just adds a whole nother layer to it.
FOXWORTH: There's always the part where you have to do - like, they just look at your body, too. Like, coaches and general managers just look at your body. That's the most slave-auctiony part where you just stand up there and it's like, hey, what you look like with just shorts on? Like, that was the part that was like...
LIZARRAGA: And, I mean, I used to dance competitively, so it reminds me of auditions. But as a Texan, it also sounds kind of like a stock show.
DEMBY: Hold up, hold up, hold up. What is a stock show? I'm a city boy. Like, talk to me like I'm stupid.
LIZARRAGA: OK. This is not just country, Gene. You know, they're like ag competitions, you know, agriculture competitions where breeders trot out their prize animals donning these numbers on their backs to compete for best sheep or, like, champion bull. It sounds like I'm making that up, but those are real categories.
DEMBY: I'm laughing, but, like, that's wild. Like, it is kind of the same energy.
DEMBY: A lot of the evaluations at the Combine are not televised. We don't see the interviews the NFL prospects do with different teams where they get asked probing - sometimes wild, like, really out-of-pocket questions about their personal lives.
LIZARRAGA: Like, what kind of questions?
DEMBY: OK. So recently, one team was asking players, do you find your mother attractive?
LIZARRAGA: Stop. What?
DEMBY: I guess it's to see how they react. It's bananas. And up until last year, Lori, they even had to take an IQ test.
LIZARRAGA: Gene, no.
DEMBY: Yes, it was called the Wonderlic test. It was an IQ test that was designed in the 1930s with all the jankiness that is implied in that. Domonique said that at another point on the Combine, all the players were sort of shuttled between different medical staff and trainers, just having their bodies poked and prodded.
FOXWORTH: I think lots of players have, like, degraded at the Combine stories, but mine is we were doing the physicals and so the physical is you, like, conveyor belt-style go from room to room to room where if you had a history of injuries, you have to go here for this body part and go there. And then there's also the traditional physical stuff. So you had to do the turn your head and cough. And I don't know if that one needs an explainer, but...
LIZARRAGA: OK. Having never done this, that's when they check you for a hernia, right?
DEMBY: Yeah. A doctor or whoever holds your scrotum in their hand and tells you to turn your head and cough. And there were too many people being checked at the time Domonique was supposed to do this, so he couldn't go into a room for this to happen. And...
FOXWORTH: I had to do that in the hallway 'cause...
DEMBY: Oh, my God.
FOXWORTH: ...It was backed up. And so, like, there was nobody in there but other, like, Combine participants. But it still was, like, degrading as shit. Like, you just - like, hey, we just going to - just go ahead. We're backed up. What's your name? OK. What's your number? Pull them out.
DEMBY: Domonique said at the time, he thought that was weird as hell. But, you know, the NFL had been his dream for his whole life.
LIZARRAGA: Oh, my God. So he pulled them out?
DEMBY: Yeah, he pulled them out.
DEMBY: Domonique was drafted by the Denver Broncos. And a few years into his career, he became a player representative in the NFL players union. And later, he was the head of the union, which put him across the table from team executives and owners in some real testy meetings over things like player pensions and working conditions and the league's challenges - let's say - with coaching diversity.
FOXWORTH: Every step you go higher, it gets whiter. And it's just, like, we are allowed to be a part of the game because our bodies are useful.
DEMBY: Dominique is Black, like 60% of the 1,800 players on NFL rosters. About 70% of the players in the league are people of color. The sidelines, though, very different story. The dudes who ultimately pick who plays on game day and tells them what to do, they're all mostly white.
GUS GARCIA-ROBERTS: The NFL head coach is the person who is the ultimate kind of shot caller for a NFL team.
DEMBY: That's Gus Garcia-Roberts. He's a sports reporter for The Washington Post. And last fall, he did a deep dive into the NFL's long history of failed attempts to diversify its coaching ranks in a series called Black Out.
GARCIA-ROBERTS: He's the person who is calling all of the plays. And they're also sort of like the psyche of an NFL team off the field as well.
DEMBY: Because there's so much turnover among the players on an NFL team every year - like, people get traded or retire or get hurt or signed with new teams - the head coach gives the team a kind of philosophical or cultural continuity. And it's a really cushy gig, right? Like, the lowest-paid head coaches in the NFL make more than $3 million a year. And it's a really hard job to get. There are only 32 NFL head coaching jobs.
LIZARRAGA: Right. Like, just from a numbers standpoint, that means it's literally easier to become a U.S. senator or, like, a governor even than a head coach in the NFL. But that's wild.
DEMBY: (Laughter) Yeah. And, like, only a few of these spots open up each year. So there's always this very loud, very public speculation about who is on the shortlist to fill these spots.
LIZARRAGA: OK, Gene, I want the stats then.
LIZARRAGA: Like, what do the demographics look like for head coaches in the NFL?
DEMBY: So at the time we're recording this, just before the Super Bowl, only six of the 32 coaches in the NFL are people of color. So four are Black. One is Lebanese. And one is Latino.
LIZARRAGA: So you know, some quick math on this.
LIZARRAGA: Eighty-one percent of the head coaches in the NFL are white.
DEMBY: Oh, that was good (laughter).
LIZARRAGA: Thank you. And as we just heard, 70% of the players are not.
DEMBY: How did you do that calculation that quick?
DEMBY: That was bananas. What? What?
LIZARRAGA: (Mimicking robot beeps).
DEMBY: There's a lot of mythologizing about meritocracy in sports. Like, oh, the people who get the jobs are the most talented or the most experienced. But, like, if you look around the NFL at who gets the head coaching jobs, like, I don't know, man. Like...
LIZARRAGA: Say more, Gene.
DEMBY: OK. For example, just a few months ago, the Indianapolis Colts fired their coach, a white dude, halfway through the season because they were having a really bad year. And they replaced him with a different white dude. This guy was a retired Colts player that the owner really liked, but who had only ever coached at a Christian K-12 school in Georgia.
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LIZARRAGA: He went straight from coaching high school to coaching in the pros? I mean, that's, like, plugging a high school drama teacher to direct a $200 million Marvel movie.
DEMBY: Right? And, I mean, I guess if you're being generous, like, he did play in the league. But...
LIZARRAGA: Helpful experience but, like, I don't know. It's not exactly sufficient.
DEMBY: Yeah, which is probably why his team lost seven of the eight games he coached.
DEMBY: And all this - right? - while coaches of color can't even get a foot in the door.
DEMBY: Here's Domonique again.
FOXWORTH: There probably are people in the NFL that would like to see this change. But, like, it's hard to change all the factors that perpetuate this hierarchy in America and, in particular, inside football. And one of the biggest factors is, frankly, like, ingrained individual racism. So like, it's also that institutional racism exists. But I don't want to absolve any decision-makers of the individual racism that also impacts their decision-making. So the argument that there were not enough Black coaches in the pool, like, that's been disproven time and time again. And even if that were fair, like, they've been willing to go outside of the traditional pool to hire white coaches.
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LIZARRAGA: Oh, God. None of this is new.
DEMBY: Yeah. And this has been a source of controversy for decades. And a little over 20 years ago, actually, a bunch of people tried to get the NFL to do something about it. You would not think of the NFL as, like, a model of inclusive hiring. But the plan the NFL came up with might be the most influential diversity program in American life. That plan is called the Rooney Rule. And after the break, how the world's most famous defense attorney scared the NFL into creating the Rooney Rule, and how an executive at the NFL became the Rooney Rule's Pied Piper.
GARCIA-ROBERTS: In one conference, he called it the NFL's most significant export besides the game itself.
LIZARRAGA: Stay with us.
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DEMBY: CODE SWITCH.
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LIZARRAGA: We're talking about the Rooney Rule, the NFL's diversity plan that's been really influential but not necessarily effective.
DEMBY: All right. So back in 2002, at this steakhouse in Baltimore, some academics and activists and lawyers called a press conference. And they were trying to bring attention to the fact that the NFL then, just like now, you know, was basically shutting out Black candidates from coaching jobs. And they came to this press conference armed with this new research that found that on the rare occasions that Black coaches were hired in the NFL, their teams won more games than white coaches did. But the research also found that you were just as likely to be fired if you were a Black coach with a winning record as a white coach with a losing record.
LIZARRAGA: Oh, my God. The whole twice as good to get half as far thing.
DEMBY: Mmm hmm. Gus Garcia-Roberts, the Washington Post reporter we heard from before, said that people have been making noise about this problem for a long time, and maybe there would be a little bit of media attention before everybody moved on. But this time was different.
GARCIA-ROBERTS: There was two high-profile attorneys who, you know, held a press conference. And one of those attorneys was Johnnie Cochran.
LIZARRAGA: The Johnnie Cochran?
DEMBY: Yeah, that Johnnie Cochran.
LIZARRAGA: (Laughter) Oh.
DEMBY: Johnnie Cochran had made his name by suing the police department in Los Angeles. And those lawsuits - you know, they brought a lot of attention to the extent of the police brutality against the city's Black residents. But by 2002, Johnnie Cochran was known as the guy who helped O.J. Simpson get off in the most publicized murder case in American history.
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JOHNNIE COCHRAN: And so it doesn't make any sense. It just doesn't fit. If it doesn't fit, you must acquit.
DEMBY: I asked Gus, like, did Johnnie Cochran bust us with some bars at this press conference?
GARCIA-ROBERTS: He did, as he's known for. His kind of threat against the NFL, which was picked up a lot because it rhymed, was something along the lines of, we will only litigate if the NFL doesn't negotiate.
LIZARRAGA: Oh, like, if your coaches don't get more diverse, we're going to make things for y'all much worse.
DEMBY: Oh, my God.
LIZARRAGA: That's bad.
DEMBY: Off the dome - oh, my God. Anyway, Gus said Johnnie Cochran's little couplet was off the dome just like yours. And the people who called the press conference with him were hoping that he wouldn't do something like this. Like, please don't do anything wild, like, you know, threaten to sue the National Football League.
LIZARRAGA: Oh, God.
GARCIA-ROBERTS: They didn't have a client on whose behalf they would litigate against the NFL. But what they did have was the huge cachet of - particularly of Johnnie Cochran, who was the most famous defense attorney in the world at that moment, sort of bringing attention to the idea that there was this really kind of glaring and unfair dearth of Black head coaches in the NFL.
DEMBY: And so the NFL started to pay attention. They were worried about legal action and worried about the bad press this legal action might bring. And so Gus said this time NFL officials actually came to the table, you know, albeit reluctantly. There were some really testy meetings, but eventually the league decided to create a diversity task force.
And that task force was headed up by Dan Rooney, the ultra-wealthy owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers. And so a few months after Johnnie Cochran's, like, off-the-dome threat, the NFL announced a new rule. And it said that, quote, "that any club seeking to hire a head coach will interview one or more minority applicants for the position."
LIZARRAGA: So it's the thing. It's the thing we hear about a lot even today, the public relations promise to hire from a diverse pool of candidates.
DEMBY: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
LIZARRAGA: And that's the Rooney rule?
DEMBY: Yep, that's the Rooney rule.
LIZARRAGA: The Rooney rule isn't even named after someone - a person of color? You got to be kidding.
DEMBY: (Laughter) That's fitting, right?
LIZARRAGA: I don't know. I don't know, Gene, because, like, how is the NFL making sure teams actually interviewed candidates in good faith and not just to check a box, then? Like, you know, OK, we interviewed that Black dude or that Latino guy, and now we'll go ahead with hiring the white guy we were going to hire all along.
DEMBY: Listen, like, what you just said is what so many people were worried about. Johnny Cochran and the folks who threatened to sue the NFL proposed a plan a lot like the Rooney rule to NFL owners, except the Johnny Cochran version has some teeth to it. You know, maybe the league should give draft picks to teams that hire coaches of color and maybe the league should take away draft picks from teams that did not. But the team owners were not feeling that at all. So all those ideas that might have given the Rooney rule some real power - they never made it to the final version.
LIZARRAGA: But without the teeth, there's kind of no way to hold anyone accountable for this working.
DEMBY: Right. Which became apparent right away. Not long after this rule was announced, it got put to the test by the Dallas Cowboys long-time owner Jerry Jones.
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JERRY JONES: I just want to say this. There is no substitute for winning. I know that's a cliche, but we must win.
DEMBY: Your boy, Jerry Jones.
LIZARRAGA: My boy? Gene...
LIZARRAGA: Gene, please - I grew up in Texas, OK, but I'm from Louisiana. And we're a Saints family all day, baby. Who dat (ph)?
DEMBY: Man, I'm playing, I'm playing. That was kind of mean. I would never put the Cowboys on you. But yeah, Jerry Jones was looking to fill his head coaching spot.
LIZARRAGA: Oof, and the Cowboys - I mean, that's a big job. They truly are a cash cow of a team in the NFL.
DEMBY: Yup, yup.
LIZARRAGA: Right? They're always on TV selling their overpriced merch, even when they're not that good, which - no shade - is fairly often.
DEMBY: Oh, shade very much appreciated, Lori - no quarter for the Cowboys in this show at all. But yeah, right after the Rooney rule was passed, Jerry Jones called up Denny Green. And Denny Green had been a winning and respected head coach in Minnesota. He was also, importantly, the second ever Black coach in NFL history.
Well, Jerry Jones called him up, you know what I mean? Talked to him on the phone for 45 minutes or whatever, whatever. On the flip side, he spent 5 hours on the tarmac on a private jet chopping it up with Bill Parcells, another candidate for the job. Bill Parcells is white. And famously, Jerry Jones hired Bill Parcells.
LIZARRAGA: It should be said, this is the same Jerry Jones who we all just found out last fall was one of the white students captured in the crowd of a 1957 photo yelling at Black students trying to integrate a white school in Little Rock.
DEMBY: Yup. And, you know, it's dudes like Jerry Jones who get to make the call on who to hire as NFL coaches.
LIZARRAGA: And we can see the sidelines, right? Like, it's pretty clear the Rooney Rule hasn't made a difference.
DEMBY: Yeah. Here's what Gus Garcia-Roberts of The Washington Post said he found when he was reporting all this out.
GARCIA-ROBERTS: The short answer is that it has not worked in the long term. So when the Rooney Rule was first created, at that time, there was two Black head coaches in the NFL. And at one point, that number rose to seven. And so for proponents of the Rooney Rule, this looked like a sort of wild success. Sociologists I've spoke to said that you see this where it doesn't necessarily have to do with a policy, but it's just - you know, people are looking. Either way, the numbers start to fall. And at last check - three Black head coaches in the NFL.
DEMBY: And actually, since I talked to Gus, the Texans hired another Black coach.
LIZARRAGA: So there were two back then and there are four now? Progress.
DEMBY: The dizzying heights. Another thing, though, that I've noticed just as a sports fan is, like, whenever there's a head coaching vacancy in the NFL, you'll hear the same few Black dudes' names bandied about very publicly in consideration for these jobs.
LIZARRAGA: Right, like the teams are broadcasting that they're abiding by the rule. See, wokesters (ph)? We're interviewing one or more minority applicants for the position.
DEMBY: Wokesters (laughter).
LIZARRAGA: So bad.
DEMBY: Last season, one dude, a coach named Brian Flores, who was Black and Latino, sued several NFL teams because he found text messages that showed that they had already decided on a white coach before they even went about interviewing any coaches of color. And he talked about what that interview process was like with our play cousins over at NPR's The Limits
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BRIAN FLORES: So, you know, in the Denver Broncos process, I go to the interview. I went into it feeling like this was a Rooney Rule interview. They didn't interview any other Black candidate, I don't believe. They were late to the interview - you know, 45 minutes to an hour, somewhere in there. So, you know, look, I've been on nine interviews. There's notes. They're ready to go. And, you know, this - looked disheveled, looked like they were out of it. And, you know, I just felt like it was - you know, the decision had already been made.
LIZARRAGA: Oh, God. I remember this story. That interview that he is talking about, that was playing out when I was a reporter in Denver. And his lawsuit got a lot of attention last year and rightfully so. Like, nobody has time to be a token interview. It's just - hearing that, it's so disrespectful.
DEMBY: Right? When I was talking to Gus, he said another Black coach told him, look, I won't even take an interview with an NFL team unless that team had already interviewed other coaches of color.
LIZARRAGA: God, I mean, it seems like teams should be getting in trouble for this all the time.
DEMBY: Here's the thing, though. Like, Gus said that in the 20 years or so since the Rooney Rule was adopted, only one official punishment has ever been levied.
LIZARRAGA: One. That's wild.
DEMBY: Yeah, man. It was right after the rule was put in place back in 2003. The NFL slapped an executive of the Detroit Lions with a $200,000 fine for not interviewing any candidates of color before, you know, hiring a white coach.
LIZARRAGA: Two hundred thousand dollars? I mean, that is coat check money for these bajillionaire (ph) NFL owners.
DEMBY: Yes, it's pocket change.
DEMBY: And so basically, they only dinged someone on this when the Rooney Rule was brand-new and everybody was paying attention.
LIZARRAGA: And it sounds like that set a kind of precedent. Just skirt the rules the Jerry Jones way, not the Detroit Lions way.
DEMBY: Right. Exactly. It absolutely set a precedent that went beyond the league, too. Like, this is the NFL we're talking about. It's one of the most powerful and influential media corporations in the United States. It's the most popular sports league in the country, and it's not even particularly close. So when they went around patting themselves on the back, you know, for coming up with the Rooney Rule, corporate America took notice. Gus told me about this guy who became the NFL's Rooney Rule evangelist. His name was Robert Gulliver.
GARCIA-ROBERTS: He was a former human resources executive at Citibank and Wells Fargo. And so he would sort of travel to symposiums and business conferences - some of them that had nothing to do with sports - and he would - in one conference, he called it the NFL's most significant export besides the game itself.
DEMBY: Companies like Xerox and Facebook and Intel even got shouted out by the Obama administration for adopting their own versions of the Rooney Rule. Gus said that the Rooney Rule was really attractive to companies caught up in bad PR because of some scandal involving race.
LIZARRAGA: Right. You could see why they'd glom onto it, though, right? Like, it doesn't really cost anything to implement. And as we heard, it doesn't necessarily have to change anything, either.
DEMBY: Yeah. And to your point, Lori, public companies have to file paperwork with the federal government, you know, about what's going on with their companies. Gus found out that after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis in 2020, the number of public companies who mentioned the Rooney Rule in those mandatory filings skyrocketed. So eight companies mentioned the Rooney Rule in 2019, which was the year before his killing. Since his death, and up to last September, there have been 268 mentions of the Rooney Rule.
LIZARRAGA: Oh, like skyrocketed.
DEMBY: Skyrocketed skyrocketed. And, you know, it's too soon to tell whether these corporate versions of the Rooney Rule will work better than the NFL's. But, you know, the diversity experts that Gus talked to say those plans suffer from the same fatal flaws in their design.
GARCIA-ROBERTS: Some of the experts that I spoke to actually said that they thought that implementing the Rooney Rule in a troubled company or a troubled industry that has problems with discriminatory hiring can actually have a negative effect because, you know, the corporation is able to say, look, we fixed it.
DEMBY: He said that for the NFL, the glowing press from the Rooney Rule allowed them to turn the page from some really big scandals they were facing. There were things like the revelation that former players were suffering from debilitating brain injuries from their playing days and that the NFL knew about it and covered up the extent of how bad it was. There were player strikes and referee strikes. There was the whole Colin Kaepernick situation. A bunch of really well-known players were arrested for domestic violence. Like, Gus said the Rooney Rule was unalloyed good press for the league. So they really leaned into it.
GARCIA-ROBERTS: I think that the NFL looked like it was on the vanguard of equal hiring and that it had this sort of, like, piece of goodwill that they could tout that showed, hey, you know, we're social leaders. We've created a model that corporate America can seize on and that can help better the whole world. So I think that they are always looking for good news, and that for a while, looked like really good news.
DEMBY: But, Lori, this year, the Rooney Rule has expanded to include some of those original provisions suggested by Johnnie Cochran, you know, like giving and taking away draft picks, all that kind of stuff. And it got me wondering, like, what if the Rooney Rule that the NFL had been spending all this time patting itself on the back for actually was this huge achievement for diversity inclusion? Like, what if it really did work?
LIZARRAGA: Well, I mean, if we know that the league is 70% brown players and there's 32 coaches in the league, 70% of that would be 22 coaches of color.
DEMBY: You are really good at this back-of-the-envelope math, like bananas. What?
LIZARRAGA: But honestly, Gene, I mean, I don't know what that would really change.
DEMBY: Yeah. So I asked Domonique Foxworth the same question. Like, what would be different if most of the coaches in the NFL were Black?
FOXWORTH: Maybe this will surprise you, but I think the answer is nothing. The argument, at least in my view, is not about getting Black people in these positions of power because that's going to, like, break the system, and then we'll have a better overall system. That's not what's going to happen. That's never what happens.
DEMBY: What Domonique is getting at is the big existential diversity, equity and inclusion question. Like, what systems and institutions are people trying to diversify, and to what end? There's a quarterback who plays for the Miami Dolphins. His name is Tua Tagovailoa. And he suffered this horrifying seizure on the field during a game last year.
LIZARRAGA: Yes. Oh, my gosh. You don't even have to watch football to have heard about that incident. It was everywhere. It was so, so horrible, Gene.
DEMBY: It was the worst. And the coach who sent him in knew that he had suffered a concussion five days earlier, knew playing him would put him in serious danger. And that coach is one of the league's four Black coaches. And he was just as defensive and irritated when people questioned his decision to do that as any other coach would have been.
FOXWORTH: So, like, I fight for Black coaches. I fight for the idea of Black ownership and Black general managers and Black quarterbacks. Like, I fight for a fair, like, playing field. But I'm not under the illusion that Black people in those positions are suddenly going to be, like, you know what? Now that I have the power, let me give it up.
DEMBY: And see? Like, this is what I meant at the beginning of this conversation, Lori. Like, these are all the things I'm going to be thinking about when I'm just trying to watch the Super Bowl this weekend because my team, my beloved Eagles, are going to be in the Super Bowl. There's going to be all kinds of stuff in the game that should make me really happy. But being an NFL fan and knowing everything we know about what it costs and who it benefits, it just makes me feel really dirty.
FOXWORTH: Football is only popular in America. It's insanely popular here because it kind of is America. Like, in - from the racial dynamics to the class dynamics to the cronyism and nepotism that, like, benefits a select group, like, it is America.
LIZARRAGA: And on that, enjoy your nachos.
DEMBY: All right, y'all. That is our show.
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LIZARRAGA: This episode was produced by James Sneed with help from Kumari Devarajan, Diba Mohtasham and our intern, Olivia Chilkoti. It was edited by Courtney Stein and engineered by Robert Rodriguez.
DEMBY: And we would be remiss if we did not shoutout the rest of the CODE SWITCH massive. That's B.A. Parker, Dalia Mortada, Veralyn Williams, Karen Grigsby Bates, Christina Cala, Alyssa Jeong Perry, Jess Kung and Steve Drummond. Our art director is LA Johnson.
LIZARRAGA: And we just want to give a quick shoutout to our CODE SWITCH+ listeners. We appreciate you and thank you for being a subscriber. Subscribing to CODE SWITCH+ means getting to listen to all our episodes without any sponsor breaks, and it also helps support our show. So if you love our work, please consider signing up at plus.npr.org/codeswitch.
DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.
LIZARRAGA: I'm Lori Lizarraga.
DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.
LIZARRAGA: Call your grandma.
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