The Oakland Raiders were recently investigated, and subsequently cleared, for violating the Rooney Rule. But without a clear definition of the rule, is it even possible to violate it?
There has been a lot of talk surrounding the Oakland Raiders hiring of new Head Coach Jon Gruden as it pertains to their compliance with the Rooney Rule, or possible lack thereof. Team owner Mark Davis made it clear that he would have retained now former head coach Jack Del Rio if the opportunity to hire Gruden had not materialized. This essentially admitted that the job was never truly open, as it was either staying with Del Rio or going to Gruden.
This led the Fritz Pollard Alliance to ask the NFL to investigate the Raiders for possibly violating the rule. Here is their official statement on the matter:
We are deeply concerned by reports that the Oakland Raiders’ owner, Mark Davis, came to an agreement with Jon Gruden about him becoming the Raiders’ next head coach before interviewing any candidates of color,” the statement said. “If so, the Club violated the Rooney Rule, which was instituted by the NFL in 2003 and requires teams to interview at least one candidate of color for open head coaching and general manager positions.
As soon as we learned of the reports, we formally requested that the NFL thoroughly investigate the matter to conclusively determine whether the Rooney Rule was violated — and if it was violated, to impose an appropriate punishment.
The NFL conducted an investigation and officially cleared the organization of breaking the rule due to the interviews of former tight end coach Bobby Johnson and USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin. These interviews took place after Del Rio was fired and before Gruden was officially hired, which seems to be what is required within the rule.
Per @NFLprguy, the NFL confirms the #Raiders complied with the Rooney Rule during the hire of Jon Gruden. The league spoke with Gruden, GM Reggie McKenzie, and owner Mark Davis. The team interviewed TE coach Bobby Johnson & #USC OC Tee Martin for HC.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) January 19, 2018
The Raiders were cleared because even though they knew all along they were going to hire Gruden, they did in fact interview two minority candidates before officially hiring him, satisfying the rule. It is now being questioned if those interviews should even count at all if Davis and Gruden had already agreed in principal — even if the contract was yet signed. This should be an easy question to answer by looking at the how the rule is officially worded. The problem is that the rule isn’t officially worded anywhere.
In the process of investigating the claims of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, I attempted to get the actual wording of the Rooney Rule — yet no such documentation exists. There is nothing to be found on the official terms of the rule except the statement that “The Rooney Rule is an NFL policy that requires league teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs.”
It is so ambiguous that pinning down a clear violation is nearly impossible. Detriot Lions president Matt Millen was fined $200,000 in 2003 for hiring Steve Mariucci without first interviewing a minority candidate. At the time, Millen said he had attempted to interview minority candidates but they had declined to interview for the job because they believed it was certain Mariucci would be hired. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue did not find that reasoning as a valid excuse at the time.
“As the president of the Lions”, Tagliabue explained. “You participated in the decision by NFL clubs to commit to interview minority candidates when hiring head coaches; and you made that commitment for the Lions on the Dec. 20 league conference call after full discussion of the diversity committee’s recommendation,” Tagliabue wrote to Millen. “As club president, it was your responsibility to ensure that you and the Lions organization met the commitment or demonstrated to this office that it was impossible to meet for some justifiable reason.
However, there is no reason Mariucci could not have been considered a minority candidate as the Rooney Rule itself does not even specify what constitutes as a minority candidate. While we all have our own ideas of what the wording was intending, without a specific explanation, the Lions could have simply claimed Mariucci was a minority candidate. Even the Fritz Pollard Alliance, who work to oversee the rule is enforced, doesn’t have a clear definition.
The Chairman of the FPA even has been quoted as saying that if a person considers themselves to be a minority, then they accept it:
"Let me get you back on track here," said Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance. "First of all, we deal with a very simple point. If a person considers himself a minority, we accept it." The more I research this, the more confusing it gets. https://t.co/byd4BsSQh0
— Chris Reed (@LVRaidersreview) January 20, 2018
What I found was the NFL has a rule that is actually just a guideline. It does not specify what constitutes as a hiring, therefore it doesn’t set a time frame that the minority interviews must take place in. They also do not specify what a minority is, and the main watchdogs of the rule are on record saying they will accept any candidate considering themselves a minority as satisfying the criteria of the rule.
So with any coach being able to claim minority status and a rule that doesn’t clearly establish a mandated timeline, how is this “rule” enforceable? The question I am left with isn’t if the Raiders violated the Rooney Rule, but rather, if it is even possible to violate it at all?