Cyrus Mehri's Agenda: Creating A Level Playing Field
Why this matters
The NFL’s Rooney Rule, established in 2003, has required franchises to interview candidates of Color for senior football operations and head coaching positions. After Tony Dungy and Dennis Green were fired following the 2002 season, despite their relative success, civil rights lawyers Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri (2002) published a study that revealed African American head coaches were “last hired and first fired” when compared to their White counterparts, despite having higher winning percentages.
When the Houston Texans hired David Culley in January as the franchise’s first non-interim Black head coach, it illustrated how the National Football League’s “Rooney Rule” has changed the game for coaches of Color—and also how it hasn’t.
Established in 2003 to promote greater diversity within a NFL leadership fraternity long populated almost exclusively by Whites, the rule requires teams to interview qualified candidates of Color for open head coaching positions.
In Culley’s case, the rule appears to have worked as intended. The Texans reportedly interviewed several Black coaches—including Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and Buffalo Bills assistant head coach Leslie Frazier—before settling on the 65-year-old Baltimore Ravens assistant head coach.
With 27 years of NFL coaching experience, Culley is exactly the sort of candidate that commonly was passed over by team decision-makers prior to the rule’s existence.
Zoom out from his hiring, however, and the league’s sidelines remain something less than a bastion of racial equality.
Though NFL players are predominantly Black, the league’s head coaches continue to be mostly White. Of the seven head coaching hires made this offseason, only two were of Color: Culley and New York Jets coach Robert Saleh, who is Lebanese.
And that’s no anomaly. Just five of the NFL’s 32 teams currently have head coaches of Color. Over the last four off-seasons, Whites have filled 23 of 27 open head coaching positions.
According to USA TODAY, six franchises—the Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys, Jacksonville Jaguars, Los Angeles Rams, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, and Tennessee Titans—have never had a head coach of Color.
Those numbers suggest that while the Rooney Rule has made the NFL coaching landscape more equitable, it has not eliminated the barriers and biases that can make it more difficult for the league’s coaches of Color to climb the career ladder than their White peers.
“For coaching candidates of Color to just get in the interview room with a chance to compete in a [hiring] game that is fundamentally about competition has been a breakthrough,” says Cyrus Mehri, a civil rights attorney who was instrumental in the creation of the Rooney Rule and co-founded the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a non-profit organization that champions diversity in the NFL. “More and more doors have opened."
“But the NFL is a reflection of America, and a bellwether of America. And what we see in the league brings to light just how hard it is in general to overcome racial discrimination.”
A new study conducted by the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University supports that view. Examining NFL head coach, offensive coordinator, and defensive coordinator hiring and firing patterns between the 2002-2003 and 2019-2020 seasons, the study found that since the onset of the Rooney Rule:
- Head coaches of Color have not experienced consistent increased numbers of new hires, and continue to comprise a small percentage of the total head coaches in the NFL compared to Whites.
- NFL offensive coordinators, the vast majority of whom are White, are much more likely than defensive coordinators to be hired as head coaches.
- Compared to head coaches of Color, Whites have a broader range of previous playing and coaching experience and are presented with a greater variety of coaching options when their time as a head coach ends.
- Compared to their counterparts of Color, White offensive and defensive coordinators come from a wider range of playing levels and coaching experiences, and also enjoy a wider variety of future opportunities.
“In my [legal] work, I fight discrimination on a daily basis,” Mehri says. “Sometimes I think that people don’t realize just how tenacious a foe it is. It permeates society. It is a very entrenched problem.”
Calling for change
Mehri was incredulous. A diehard professional football fan, he was reading the newspaper sports page on Martin Luther King Day in 2002 when he saw that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had fired their head coach, Tony Dungy.
Dungy, who is Black, had transformed the Buccaneers from NFL laughingstock to championship contender, reaching the playoffs four times in six seasons. Now he was out of a job. His dismissal came days after the Minnesota Vikings fired head coach Dennis Green, also Black, who had led the franchise to the playoffs in eight of ten seasons and twice finished one win short of reaching the Super Bowl.
At the time, Dungy and Green were two of five Black head coaches in the NFL’s entire 80-year-history. That didn’t set well with Mehri, who had spearheaded groundbreaking, multimillion-dollar lawsuits against Coca-Cola and Texaco showing that employees of Color at both companies faced discrimination in pay, promotions, and evaluations.
Mehri suspected that something similar was happening to Black coaches in the NFL—that they were “last hired and first fired,” given far fewer head coaching opportunities than Whites while being held to a higher performance standard. He had a legal intern create a database of the league’s head coach hirings, firings, and win-loss records over the previous 15 seasons, then gave that information to Janice Madden, a University of Pennsylvania professor and labor economist.
Madden’s subsequent analysis was, in Mehri’s words, “stunning.” She found that Black head coaches on average won 1.1 more games per season than their White peers. They led their teams to the playoffs 67 percent of the time, compared to 39 percent for Whites. Yet those same Black coaches also were more likely to be fired.
And that wasn’t all. Mehri and prominent civil rights attorney Johnnie Cochran worked with Madden to produce a report showing that from 1986 to 2001, the NFL had 139 head coach openings—only six of which went to Blacks. In 2000, all nine vacancies were filled by Whites who had losing records or scant head coaching experience; meanwhile, Black candidates such as Sherman Lewis, an offensive coordinator with four Super Bowl rings, and Emmitt Thomas, a Hall of Fame former player and highly-regarded defensive assistant for over two decades, weren’t even interviewed.
Marvin Lewis, the Black defensive coordinator for a Baltimore Ravens team that won the Super Bowl in 2000 on the strength of its historically dominant defense, was interviewed by the Buffalo Bills. But according to the report, the franchise made it clear that their interest wasn’t serious, as Lewis “never received a tour of the team’s facilities, nor was he invited to meet with the team’s real decision-makers.”
In October of 2002, Cochran and Mehri held a press conference in Baltimore to discuss the report’s findings—and to call for change. They proposed requiring teams to interview candidates of Color for head coach and coordinator jobs, awarding draft picks to franchises that diversified their front offices, and taking draft picks away from teams that didn’t consider candidates of Color for head coach and coordinator jobs.
“The NFL is part of the epicenter of this country,” Mehri said at the press conference. “When kids today see so few African-American head coaches, what does that tell them? The fans are being cheated—a lot of African-American coaches are better qualified than some of the people currently holding the job and our data shows that. In a league where 70 percent of the players are African-American, someday those players are going to retire. What does that mean to them when an option important to many of them is shut down?”
According to the New York Times, then-Baltimore owner Art Modell did not react favorably to the proposal, stating that “Color is not a factor” in NFL coaching hires and that if he listened to Cochran, he would have “O.J. Simpson coaching my team.'' But shortly thereafter, Mehri met with the NFL, which formed a committee to study the issue and make policy recommendations.
The league subsequently adopted the rule, named after former Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney. Draft pick rewards and penalties were a no-go, opposed by both team owners and then-NFL Players’ Association executive director Gene Upshaw. Nor were coordinator positions included.
For the first time, however, teams with head coaching vacancies would be required to at least have meaningful interviews with coaches of Color such as Marvin Lewis—who was hired by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2003 and coached the team for 16 seasons, reaching the playoffs seven times.
“You can’t mandate people to do anything,” says Lewis, currently the co-defensive coordinator at ASU. “That’s off the table. In some ways, [hiring a coach is] like when you go in to buy a car. For the most part, you end up with the vehicle you decided on before going into the dealer—make, model, and probably the same color. But if you get a chance to [test] drive something better, you might be swayed.”
The rule helped foster greater sideline diversity—and relatively quickly. The number of Black head coaches in the NFL rose from two in 2001 to six in 2005 to an all-time high of eight in 2011. In 2007, Dungy led the Indianapolis Colts to a championship, becoming the first Black head coach to win a Super Bowl.
The Colts’ opponent in that game? The Chicago Bears—a team coached by Lovie Smith, the franchise’s first Black head coach.
And the rule’s impact wasn’t limited to professional football. In 2009, the state of Oregon passed a law requiring its public colleges and universities to interview at least one qualified minority candidate for all head coach and athletic director openings. Last year, the West Coast Conference announced the adoption of a “Russell Rule”—named after Hall of Fame basketball player Bill Russell—that will require all of its schools to include a member of a traditionally underrepresented community in the pool of final candidates for every athletic director, senior administrator, head coach, and full-time assistant coach job opening.
In 2015, the Rooney Rule was held up as an example by President Obama when he called in for tech companies to do more to increase diversity within their ranks. Since then, Amazon, Facebook, and Uber are among the Silicon Valley giants to have adopted versions of the rule for various positions.
“It has made a difference,” Mehri says. “You can quantify the success.” To wit: a 2015 study that compared NFL head coach hiring patterns in the Rooney Rule era to similar groups that were not affected by the policy—including college football head coaches and NFL coordinators—found that candidates of Color were roughly 20 percent more likely to fill NFL head coaching vacancies following the rule’s adoption.
Another tangible measure? The Global Sport Institute at ASU Field Study found that coaches of Color and Whites in the seasons since the rule’s adoption have similar winning percentages—and that team tenure is directly related to wins and losses, not race or ethnicity.
In other words, NFL head coaches of Color no longer appear to be held to a higher performance standard than Whites when it comes to keeping their jobs. Madden, the labor economist who originally crunched numbers for Mehri, has noticed the same effect. “To her, it showed that racial bias has decreased,” he says.
Yet overall progress toward head coaching equity in the NFL has been halting. During the 18 seasons in the Global Sport Institute study, 115 head coaches were hired. Ninety-two were White. Only two of those seasons saw more than two head coaches of Color hired; in three seasons, no head coaches of Color were hired.
The most recent edition of a yearly analysis of racial and gender hiring equity in the NFL produced by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida also paints a mixed picture of the rule’s impact. In 2003, the league’s head coaches were 91 percent White—and in 2020, they were 87.5 percent White. Moreover, coaches of Color have never accounted for more than 25 percent of NFL head coaches in any single season.
According to USA TODAY, two NFL owners who were members of the league committee that created the rule—Arthur Blank of the Falcons and Stan Kroenke of the Los Angeles Rams—have never hired a coach of Color. A third owner that was on the committee, Jeffrey Lurie of the Philadelphia Eagles, hasn’t hired a coach of Color since dismissing Ray Rhodes in 1998.
“The [Rooney Rule] hasn’t produced the numbers some of us would have liked, but it certainly has produced a consciousness about diversity that has been helpful,” says ASU athletic director Ray Anderson, a former NFL executive and member of the league committee that helped create the rule. “Without that, people forget [about diversity]. They get amnesia very quickly.”
When the Buccaneers and Chiefs meet in Super Bowl LV, the matchup will feature an NFL rarity: two Black offensive coordinators, the Buccaneers’ Byron Leftwich and the Chiefs’ Bieniemy, coaching in the same game.
During the 2020-21 regular season, Leftwich and Bieniemy were the only Black offensive coordinators in the league; following the recent promotion of Marcus Brady in Indianapolis and hiring of Anthony Lynn in Detroit, that number has doubled to four.
The relative paucity of coordinators of Color in general—and of offensive coordinators of Color in particular—helps explain the Rooney Rule’s limited impact.
“Focusing on the lack of diversity among head coaches makes sense,” says University of North Carolina at Wilmington sociology professor Jacob Day, who has studied race and career mobility in college football coaching. “But there’s also inequality at lower levels that helps lead to that.”
Think of the career path to a NFL head coaching job as an elevator in a luxury hotel. You start at the ground floor as a former player, then work your way up, floor-by-floor, through a series of coaching positions with increasing responsibilities.
More often than not, coordinator jobs are the final stop before the rooftop presidential suite: a 2016 study of NFL head coaching hires from 1985-2012 found that 70 percent involved promotions from coordinator positions.
The same study found that White position coaches were 114 percent more likely to be promoted to coordinator positions than their Black counterparts—which means that coaches of Color are getting stuck on the lower floors of the league’s career elevator, long before the Rooney Rule can create opportunities for them.
According to the NFL’s 2020 Diversity and Inclusion report, league teams hired 192 coordinators between 2012-2020. Of that total, 150 were White, while just 42 were of Color.
The same report notes that 11 franchises collectively interviewed approximately 40 candidates for open offensive and defensive coordinator positions. Only seven of those candidates were of Color. More than half of the franchises did not interview multiple candidates for the positions.
Moreover, coordinator positions are not equal. The Global Sport Institute study of league hiring patterns in the Rooney Rule era found that offensive coordinators are much more likely to become NFL head coaches than defensive coordinators—imagine offensive coordinator as a career express elevator—and that the overwhelming majority of offensive coordinators are White.
Of the 39 NFL offensive coordinators who were hired as head coaches between the 2002-2003 and 2019-2020 seasons, 35 were White. Over the same 18-season time frame, teams hired nearly 10 times as many White offensive coordinators (210) as offensive coordinators of Color (22).
Why the massive gap? The best way to become a NFL offensive coordinator is to have been a quarterback coach: a 2017 Denver Post analysis found that 110 of the 147 offensive coordinators hired between 2007 and 2017 were former league or college quarterback coaches. Of those 110 hires, 105 were White; of the five jobs that went to Black coaches, three went to the same person, longtime NFL coach Hue Jackson.
The Global Sport Institute study found the same pattern: of the 68 former NFL quarterback coaches who became offensive coordinators during the Rooney Rule era, 67 were White.
The lack of quarterback coaches of Color almost certainly is related to football’s long history of on-field racial discrimination. For decades, Blacks were erroneously believed to lack the intellectual capacity and leadership qualities to play quarterback, and capable signal-callers of Color often were forced to play other positions.
While the quarterback position is now diversifying at all levels of the sport, the downstream consequences of positional segregation continue to play out: according to the NFL’s diversity report, the majority of the league’s 50 position coaches of Color in 2020 were running backs (23) or wide receiver (16) coaches. Only one, Indianapolis’s Brady, coached quarterbacks.
“There’s more work that needs to be done in the [career] pipeline for certain positions,” Mehri says. “We’ve been making noise about that issues for quite some time.”
Coaches of Color face other career barriers, too. The Global Sport Institute study found that they have fewer pathways to NFL head coaching positions than their White counterparts:
- 10 Whites were hired directly from college head coaching jobs. No coaches of Color were.
- 10 Whites were hired directly from NFL position coach positions. Four coaches of Color were.
- 19 Whites were hired at age 40 or younger. Three coaches of Color were.
- While some White head coaches had playing experience only at the high school level or below, all head coaches of Color at least played at the college level.
Similarly, the Global Sport Institute study found that when White NFL head coaches are let go, they are more likely than head coaches of Color to be recycled into positions that are favorable to becoming a head coach again—including NFL assistant head coach, college head coach, and NFL offensive coordinator.
Social scientists who study workplace dynamics have identified other factors that stymie coaches of Color, including a lack of diversity among the NFL owners and general managers making hiring decisions; ongoing racial bias; and social segregation that can leave coaches of Color with weaker occupational networks and social capital.
According to the NFL’s 2020 diversity report, nine of the league’s 32 head coaches in 2019-2020 were either the son or father of a current or former NFL head coach, coordinator, or position coach. Meanwhile, 63 of the league’s coaches were related to each other either biologically or through marriage—and 53 of those related coaches were White.
C. Keith Harrison, the University of Central Florida professor who authored the report, wrote that the league has “a systemic problem” that is “talked about less than racism yet is just as detrimental to equity and inclusion: cronyism.”
“There’s a whole body of research showing that people tend to hire people who they trust or have worked with before, or have close relationships with,” Day says. “That means you can produce inequality simply by helping out your friends.”
With the exception of Houston hiring Culley, the current NFL offseason has thrown the limits of the Rooney Rule into sharp relief.
Bieniemy, a 51-year-old coaching veteran who has coordinated a league-leading offense and is on the verge of earning a second Super Bowl ring with the Chiefs, was unable to land a head coaching job. Leftwich, the 41-year-old Buccaneers offensive coordinator who is a former NFL quarterback and has set records with both Jameis Winston and Tom Brady under center, reportedly did not receive a single head coaching interview during the most recent hiring cycle—a seeming snub that left Tampa Bay head coach Bruce Arians “very, very pissed.”
Rod Graves, Executive Director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, told the Washington Post that he was “disappointed” that more Black head coaches were not hired and added that the group and the league will have to reevaluate teams’ hiring procedures to determine whether “something totally different” must be done.
After no head coaches of Color were hired during the 2019-2020 offseason, the NFL adopted a number of measures to promote diversity. Teams now are required to interview at least two external minority candidates—defined as people of Color or women—for head coach vacancies, at least one minority candidate for coordinator vacancies, and at least one minority candidate for senior football operations or general manager vacancies.
In addition, teams that develop minority candidates for head coach or primary football executive positions will receive a future third-round draft pick when those candidates are hired.
Mehri, who works with Graves, believes that the new measures are a step in the right direction. In some ways, they bring the NFL closer to both the letter and the spirit of the original proposal he and Cochran made in 2003—a proposal rooted in their other anti-discrimination cases.
What worked to chip away what Mehri calls “the race glass ceiling” at companies like Texaco and Coca-Cola, he says, was “muscular equal opportunity” via fair hiring processes and diverse candidate slates. The former means that everyone applying and interviewing for an open job is treated the same; the latter means that everyone intentionally includes candidates from traditionally overlooked groups, usually women and people of Color.
“With Coke, they had an incredible wealth of talented people of Color,” Mehri says. “But the top jobs, the big money jobs, were all White people. So how could we break through?
“I had read an article about Clifford Alexander, who was [President] Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of the Army. He was given a list of the officers in the pipeline to become generals. It was an all-White list. He was apoplectic. Are you telling me that in the entire U.S. Army there is not one person in the pipeline of Color? Go back and do your homework!”
Mehri laughs. “So they did,” he says. “And they came back with a list that included Colin Powell.”
Powell, of course, later became the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State. The NFL’s recent efforts to strengthen and expand the Rooney Rule, Mehri says, can have a similar effect on future opportunities for minorities. For example, research shows that having two or more women or people of Color as candidates for an open job—as opposed to just one—makes it far more likely that one of those candidates will be hired.
“It took three years of lobbying for us to finally convince the NFL to do that,” Mehri says. “But it turns out that with very coveted jobs, you have to break the norms—you have to get people out of the mindset of thinking ‘that’s the woman candidate’ or ‘that’s the Black candidate’ when they’re interviewing, which means you can’t just interview one person of Color or woman for those jobs.”
Already, there are small signs that the NFL is becoming more diverse. Three franchises hired Black general mangers during the most recent offseason, bringing the league-wide total to five. Washington hired the first Black team president in NFL history, Jason Wright, becoming the only team with a president, general manager, and head coach of Color. The franchise also hired Jennifer King, the league’s first-ever full-season Black female assistant coach.
By March, the league office and all 32 franchises are required to finalize diversity, equity, and inclusion plans, which much be implemented by 2022.
“Change takes time,” Mehri says. “You can’t see it in six months. And you have to have a holistic approach for the whole thing to work. You need to give people a chance in the pipeline. You need to level the playing field so they can advance. And you need diversity in decision-makers. You need more than a rule—you need cultural changes.”
How the NFL Moves Forward
18 years after the inception of the Rooney Rule, data shows a lack of forward progress when it comes to diversity at the highest levels of leadership in the NFL.
What actions are necessary to move the chains on safety, equity, and inclusion in the league?