Today the NFL lost a legend. Steelers chairman Dan Rooney passed away at the age of 84. Rooney was a pioneer in the NFL. His father Art’s Steelers and Al Davis’s Raiders had fierce battles on the field in the 1970s. When Dan Rooney took over as chairman in 1988, he joined Davis’s fight in offering opportunities for minorities.
Rooney was so passionate about it, there is a rule that bears his name. The Rooney rule requires any team looking to hire a new head coach to interview a minority as part of the process.
Many have scoffed at the rule because it’s so easily subverted by a team that has a certain coach in mind to just go through the motions with a minority candidate. But it serves a valuable purpose to this day.
But it does help a great deal. First of all, it forces teams to consider who might be a good minority candidate when they otherwise might not have. Second, it gets those coaches in the room when they otherwise wouldn’t get that chance. Should they make an impression, they might be considered for the next opening or recommended for other jobs. Third it gets their name out there as a viable candidate. It’s the same reason agents leak to the media that their clients are taking visits and receiving offers.
While Rooney has his name on the rule, it was Al Davis who was the standard bearer for minority hires. He hired the first minority head coach in Tom Flores, the first black head coach in Art Shell, and the first and only ever female CEO in Amy Trask.
Even in a league where the majority of players are black, the coaching ranks still don’t reflect it. But it’s getting better. Currently 8 of 32 NFL head coaches are black. That’s not great, but it’s not nearly as bad as it once was. And it’s thanks to the work of pioneers like Al Davis and Dan Rooney that dragged the league kicking and screaming to this point.
That fight is the only one that’s been neck and neck since the 70s. The Raiders and the Steelers success hasn’t overlapped much since then. The Steelers won two Super Bowls under Dan Rooney in 2005 and 2010 in the midst of the Raiders 14-year streak without a winning season. Al Davis would pass a few months after watching Rooney hoist his second Lombardi Trophy.
Rest in Peace, Dan Rooney. Worthy adversary in the game of football, and strong ally in the fight for equal opportunity in NFL coaching.
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