I’ve written about the ineffectiveness of the NFL’s Rooney Rule for so long that many of the older pieces have disappeared from digital archives. That’s a shame, because like all writers, I love to point out when I was right, years in advance.
That’s why I spent all morning desperately looking for pieces I wrote circa 2013 calling for the NFL’s Rooney Rule to be expanded beyond the coaching ranks to its owners suite. The rule, named for the family that owns the Pittsburgh Steelers, was supposed to expand opportunities for nonwhite coaches to climb the NFL’s ladder. Two decades later, the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin entered this offseason as the league’s only Black head coach. Brian Flores, who was fired by the Miami Dolphins at the end of last season, joined Tomlin’s staff as an assistant while still suing the NFL for racial discrimination in its head hiring practices.
The NFL did the predictable yesterday at its annual ownership meetings in Palm Beach, Fla. Under scrutiny and and still facing Flores’ class action suit (in February, the league hired former Obama administration attorney general Loretta Lynch, the nation’s first Black woman attorney general, to lead its defense), the league announced a Rooney Rule update mandating that every team has at least one nonwhite or woman coach among their offensive assistants. The rationale is that in today’s NFL, offense is so prioritized over defense that a diverse offensive coaching pipeline is the straightest line to more diverse head coaching ranks. Ironically, Tomlin, one of the longest-tenured and most successful head coaches in the modern NFL, was a defensive coordinator before becoming head coach; Flores followed the same path.
But here’s what’s getting far less attention, and where–I’ll say it again–I was right. In addition to its coaching diversity mandate, the NFL also issued a statement calling for diversification of its team ownership groups. Here’s where typically I’d quote another story that had more details, but the attention to this specific provision is so thin there’s almost nothing to quote.
The Associated Press wrote that, “The league also released a resolution to increase diversity ownership of franchises…” Dale Lolley of DK Pittsburgh Sports wrote that the NFL would be, “supporting the inclusion of minority investors in all new ownership groups.” The New York Times’ story on the updated Rooney Rule quoted newly hired Houston Texans head coach Lovie Smith saying that only the league’s owners can meaningfully change its hiring practices, but the story doesn’t mention the NFL’s statement on increasing diversity among owners.
ESPN’s story had perhaps the most detail:
The statement read in part: “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.”
The statement does not require minority participation in ownership groups.
The lack of specificity is a shame, because of all the things the NFL could do to address equity at every level, increasing equity participation among its ownership ranks is the most significant and longest-overdue change possible.
The NFL’s ownership structure is best described in salacious political terms: it’s a socialist cabal among oligarchs who’ve managed over the years to manipulate public policy to treat an entertainment product like a public good. Stadiums receive billions in public funding for construction and maintenance, Congressional investigations are dangled when the specter of cheating is afoot and cities consider the interests of NFL owners when making budget, development and public safety decisions.
In short, the NFL is a small group of really powerful white people (the exception being Jacksonville Jaguars principal owner Shad Khan, who last week shuttered his Black News Channel cable network, allegedly without giving workers their final paychecks) that can do almost whatever it wants. Until yesterday, it had never publicly mentioned making its ranks Blacker, browner or more female as something that it wanted to do. Even now, it’s short on details.
What does it mean to ‘support the inclusion of minority investors in new ownership groups’, when sales of teams are rare and the capital necessary to buy one is astronomical? Out of 32 NFL teams, only four changed hands in the past decade, at an average sale price of about $1.29 billion based on reported deal values. Some NFL teams, like the Steelers, founded in 1933, are family enterprises that have never changed hands at all.
The new policy could signal that the NFL plans to support one of the two Black businessmen—financier Robert F. Smith and media entrepreneur Byron Allen—who have emerged as suitors for the Denver Broncos franchise, which is up for sale. It could mean eventually requiring any new ownership group to include a nonwhite or woman member with a minimum equity stake. It could mean an NFL-backed venture fund to serve as a pool of capital for including nonwhite members in current ownership groups.
It could mean all those things, or none of them. The only certainty is that it’s the most important thing to watch for anyone concerned about diversity in the NFL.