Rod Graves is cautiously optimistic that the measures adopted by the NFL last week indeed will hit the mark of improving diversity hiring throughout the league. But not until he sees tangible results will he be convinced that the league is on the right track.
“This was the most comprehensive package that I’ve seen the NFL put forth regarding diversity since I’ve been in the league,” Graves, the executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, told Newsday, referring to the enhancements to the Rooney Rule.
Graves has worked with the league to come up with a more robust set of measures to address what commissioner Roger Goodell has indicated is a major priority for the league.
Said Graves, “The plan extends from not only the most obvious position of general manager and head coach, but now we’re talking president positions, we’re talking other areas of football and even some of the grassroots programs for pipeline development. I’m impressed from that standpoint with the bandwidth of what was presented.”
But it’s too soon to know if the push for diversity will be successful.
“Even in light of the steps that have been taken, at the end of the day, we can’t start claiming victory until we see the results,” said Graves, a former Cardinals general manager who worked as an NFL executive for 37 years before taking over as head of the Fritz Pollard Alliance in 2019. “There has to be a commitment in here that has yet to be realized. I regard [the Rooney Rule upgrades] as a good first quarter, and you can’t claim victory after the first quarter. We still have a lot of work ahead.”
Currently, there are four minority head coaches and two general managers. In the last hiring cycle, one of the five coaches hired — Ron Rivera of the Redskins — was a minority candidate. Of 20 openings at head coach in the last three years, only three minority coaches have been hired and one — Steve Wilks of the Cardinals — was fired after the 2018 season.
Goodell called for improvement in the league’s minority hiring record at his Super Bowl news conference in Miami earlier this year. The league’s committee on diversity hiring — chaired by Steelers owner Art Rooney II, the son of Rooney Rule creator Dan Rooney — responded with the initiatives unveiled last week.
Among the new requirements: Teams must interview at least two outside minority candidates for all head-coaching positions. One external minority candidate must be interviewed for any of the three coordinator positions and the senior football operations/GM position.
In addition, teams and the league office must interview minority and/or female candidates for senior level positions.
“Mobility is a big step toward opening the door wider for opportunities for career growth,” Graves said. “I think that will benefit people of color. At least that’s what we hope.”
Much of the public focus from last week’s announcement of additional measures to bolster diversity hiring centered on something that wasn’t approved: a controversial plan that would reward teams with improved draft positioning if they hired a minority coach and/or general manager. Graves said the idea wasn’t something promoted by his group; in fact, Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy, who has worked with the Fritz Pollard Alliance to address coaching diversity, criticized the plan.
“In my mind, this is drastic,” Dungy told ProFootballTalk.com last week. “I don’t think personally it’s the right thing to do . . . I just have never been in favor of rewarding people for doing the right thing. We need to keep working until we find out what the best thing is to do.”
Carson's common sense
Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, believes the NFL is at a crossroads when it comes to diversity hiring. In a league in which more than 70% of the players are African-American, he is convinced that there needs to be greater opportunities for minority coaches. And it's not simply to fill a quota or to mandate change; it’s good for the business of football and building winning franchises.
“If you get more people from different backgrounds, it makes you better, as opposed to someone who has never experienced certain things,” Carson told Newsday. “If you look at the draft, most of the players selected were overwhelmingly young men of color. Many of them have unique experiences that coaches have absolutely no understanding of where they’re from or what makes them tick. When you have a person of color who has experienced similar situations and can talk to his players in a certain manner, I think it helps these players in a way in which they should be coached.”
Carson points to his own experience as an example. He developed into a Hall of Fame player with the Giants, with whom he played from 1976-88, but not before quitting the sport at a high school senior.
“I had two sprained ankles,” Carson said, “and my coach [who was white] said, ‘If you can’t run any faster, then get off the field.’ So I got off the field.”
Carson lost a college scholarship and decided to enroll at South Carolina State, an all-black school coached by Willie Jeffries.
“I went to a school that didn’t have the best equipment or best facility, but there were things I learned from being in the midst of black coaches who understood me, who could get the best out of me, who could teach me how to be a leader,” he said. “And because I did go to South Carolina State and I knew those coaches were counting on me to be the best player I could be, I knew that if I came to the Giants, if I did anything to embarrass the school I came from, there was going to be hell to pay.”
Carson not only didn’t embarrass anyone but grew into one of the best linebackers in the NFL, became a team captain under Bill Parcells and helped the Giants to their first Super Bowl victory in franchise history after the 1986 season.
“I’m not saying, ‘Just hire a black guy as coach,’ ” Carson said. “But a black guy who is qualified, give him a shot.”
That’s all Carson is asking, and that’s what the newly strengthened Rooney Rule is designed to do. Now it’s a matter of seeing whether it will translate to increased opportunities for minority coaches.
“This has been an embarrassment for the league, not necessarily for [the league office on] Park Avenue, but for the owners,” Carson said. “It’s right there for everybody to see. Now the spotlight is on the owners. I think the light should remain on them.”