AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The NFL playoffs start tomorrow, and this week is traditionally when head coaches on bad teams get fired. And true to form, six head coaches lost their jobs this week.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
What is different this year is that four of those coaches were people of color. The Rooney Rule was adopted in 2003 to add racial diversity to head coaches in the league, and for a minute there, the rule looked to be working.
CORNISH: At the start of the season, the league had its highest-ever number of non-white coaches. Jason Reid wrote about this for ESPN's The Undefeated, and I asked him earlier if some of these recently fired coaches will get rehired by other teams anytime soon.
JASON REID: Well, it's possible. Coaches often get what's called recycled, for lack of a better way to put it, that owners will look at coaches who have been in previous jobs elsewhere throughout the league, and they'll make their own determination on whether or not they think those people should get another opportunity. So coaches often do get other jobs once they lose a job. Now, for African-American coaches, the feeling is that they are not really looked at the same way all the time as all of their colleagues.
CORNISH: What makes people say? Is that based on the length of season they get? What happens?
REID: Well, the Rooney Rule has been in place since 2003 for coaches. It was expanded to 2009 to include general manager and front office-equivalent positions. So the feeling among black assistant coaches in the league is that, OK, this has been around for this long, yet you look at the overall landscape. When you have 32 jobs, and coaches of color have never filled more than eight of those, there is a feeling among that group that more still needs to be done.
CORNISH: So let's help people understand, though, what the Rooney Rule was supposed to accomplish because I'm under the impression that all it says is that you have to bring in potential candidates, not that you have to hire them.
REID: Right. That's correct. But there is a misconception within the public that the Rooney Rule is about affirmative action or a quota system. No, all it says is that team owners should have an open mind going into the hiring process. And during the hiring process, interview a candidate of color. Not that they have to pick that person. Just be open-minded and talk to that person. And so what the league is hoping that happens is that if the interview process is opened up to more people that the best candidate will emerge. And at times, the best candidate will be a coach of color.
CORNISH: What's the NFL saying, though, about this most recent development? Essentially, it looks like the Rooney Rule isn't working - right? - if you just go by the numbers.
REID: The league is not currently saying anything about the African-American coaches who were fired this season. I think what the league is hoping is that as this hiring cycle plays out and is completed that there will be more coaches of color who wind up with head coaching positions. And that would be a much stronger platform from which the league could then comment on the situation. So they're looking at the situation, saying, OK, let's wait and see what happens before we have to weigh in on something that's clearly negative at this point.
CORNISH: We're looking at a league that 70 percent of the players are black, then you have three-quarters of starting quarterbacks that are white - obviously, a majority of coaches, general managers. Is it still the sense that the NFL has a problem with minorities in leadership positions in general?
REID: Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, addressed this last year. He acknowledged that, with regard to NFL head coaches, that the league needs to have more coaches of color in the pipeline on offense because owners now overwhelmingly, in terms of the hiring process, are selecting from that pool of candidates because of scoring, the fact that scoring touchdowns and doing those sorts of things to generate points, that's exciting to fans, and it drives TV ratings. So owners are picking from that side of the ball, yet Eric Bieniemy of the Kansas City Chiefs, entering the year, he was the only offensive coordinator of color in the league. So as you look at the situation, yes, the league acknowledges that more needs to be done, but it's, how does that happen?
CORNISH: Jason Reid of ESPN's The Undefeated. Thanks for your reporting on this.
REID: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.