The NFL will acknowledge there has been progress, some improvement, but ultimately the league admits it hasn't been good enough. And so just like a football team that might have improved to .500 when the real goal was to contend for a championship, changes had to be made. And they were.
On Monday during the NFL Owners Meetings in Palm Beach, Florida, Steelers President Art Rooney II, who serves as the chairman of the eight-member Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee, headlined a news conference that outlined where the league sees itself in that area and its plans to get where it wants to go.
"We've seen progress in certain areas over the last couple of years," said Rooney. "Certainly, the number of minorities who are interviewing for senior positions in the league has increased significantly over the last couple of years, and we have seen progress on the GM front in terms of hiring of minorities at the general manager level. And in terms of the number of minority coordinators in the league, we've seen progress there.
"Obviously we're still not seeing the kind of progress that we would like to see on the head coaching front, and so we have been focusing on that effort and how we can improve our processes. In general I would say that we have been listening to people inside and outside the football community in terms of how we can improve, and we now have a panel of experts who are going to be providing ongoing input to us."
Based on the meetings the DEI Committee had on Monday, there were a number of new initiatives launched, with three of them having to do with a position of "offensive assistant coach," with creating more diversity among ownership, and with enhancements of the Rooney Rule.
A formal resolution was adopted to provide greater opportunities for diverse candidates to serve as offensive coaches. Beginning with the 2022 season, all 32 teams will employ a diverse person, defined as a female or a member of an ethnic or racial minority, to serve as an offensive assistant. This person will receive a one-year contract and work closely with the head coach and offensive staff to gain experience, and teams will receive reimbursement from a league-wide fund towards that offensive assistant coach's salary for up to two years.
The reasoning here is that since the teams hiring new head coaches recently have focused on candidates with offensive backgrounds, the DEI resolution is designed to get diverse candidates into this pipeline earlier in their careers and provide a path for them to gain the necessary experience in the areas that have come to be significant factors in the hiring of head coaches.
It also has been believed for some time that once ownership becomes more inclusive and is represented by more diverse individuals, it will become more likely minorities and other diverse groups will climb the ladder at both the team and league levels. The statement released by the DEI Committee outlined the commitment to increasing diversity among ownership moving forward.
"The NFL member clubs support the important goal of increasing diversity among ownership," read the resolution. "Accordingly, when evaluating a prospective ownership group of a member club pursuant to NFL policies, the membership will regard it as a positive and meaningful factor if the group includes diverse individuals who would have a significant equity stake in and involvement with the club, including serving as the controlling owner of the club."
"We do have some minority owners in the league," said Rooney, "and John Stallworth happens to be one of them and part owner of the Steelers. In terms of a significant stake, we didn't put any number on that. Obviously, it's something where we're just starting to see some minority participation on some of these teams now. We expect that to grow, and we expect this statement hopefully will open the door at least for encouraging minorities to participate. I think there's more work to be done, no question about it, but the statement at least sends the message that the door is open, that we are encouraging minority participation. And we'll look at that as a positive in terms of the groups that are bidding on the teams, whether it's a franchise that's selling a majority, or if it's just a minority stake in the team. Either way, the door will be open to minority ownership."
Having been created and named for former Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney, the Rooney Rule and its effectiveness was and continues to be a priority for the Steelers franchise. Initially effective when it was adopted in 2003, the Rooney Rule gradually lost some of its power when teams found ways to circumvent the spirit of the rule. But rather than give up, the NFL has made the effort to tweak the language to close some loopholes and change and enhance other aspects to restore its teeth so that it may be able to continue to impact the hiring process by providing more and better opportunities to minorities and expand its influence to include other diverse groups.
During these Owners Meetings, the DEI Committee found that the Rooney Rule remains a critical part of the NFL's overall hiring process by providing important accessibility and opportunity to candidates of color and women. Including women in all Rooney Rule requirements addresses the underrepresentation of women in key football positions and encourages the further identification and development of women candidates and the ability to provide them additional opportunity to interview for open positions.
The inclusion of women in all Rooney Rule requirements doesn't mandate that women be interviewed for each head coach opening, as an example. Only that women are eligible to be included in the interview process to fulfill the requirements of the Rooney Rule. At least in the immediate future, it's unlikely that many women would be interviewing for head coach or coordinator positions, simply because there is no pipeline for women in those jobs.
"There are not many women in the pool in terms of head coach now," said Rooney. "We hope that's going to change over the years, but for that reason, we didn't see (including women) as inhibiting the number of interviews (for head coaching jobs) for racial minorities at this point in time. Really, we're looking at probably the early stages of women entering the coaching ranks now. So, we may be a little ways away from that actually becoming a problem."