Knowing What We Don’t Know, Part Two: The Rooneys and Race Relations in the NFL
By Ivan Cole
Which of these key Dan Rooney decisions do you think was most consequential to the Steelers present day AND future legacy?
- a) Listening to Bill Nunn’s complaints about how the franchise dealt with African American reporters and then convincing him to join the Steelers scouting department.
- b) Hiring Chuck Noll.
- c) Firing his brother Art Rooney Jr.
- d) Choosing Bill Cowher over Tom Donahoe and replacing the latter with Kevin Colbert.
- e) Hiring Mike Tomlin (or acquiescing to Art II decision to hire Tomlin)
- f) Accepting the ambassadorship to Ireland and giving up control of the team.
I cheated and chose both a) and b) as most important, making the argument that to do justice to either demanded that their linkage be acknowledged. I feel that the Rooney (Dan and Art Sr.)/Noll/Nunn collaboration was in the same neighborhood of significance as Branch Rickey/Jackie Robinson, Paul Brown/Bill Willis, Marion Motley, and a handful of other collaborators whose actions resulted in significant transformation, not only in the supposedly trivial domain of sport, but also with significant spillover into the larger society.
I then added that my second choice was the hiring of Mike Tomlin. The reason being, that it represented an evolutionary next event in a process that began forty years earlier. But, it was also a revolutionary step as well.
My first thought was to use Tomlin as a focal point of a discussion of what many of us tend to assume but don’t really know about coaching in the NFL (or anywhere). But to truly understand the continuous controversy concerning the specific questions regarding Tomlin’s alleged competency as a coach, some further illumination is necessary.
Fred Johnson, from DeWitt Clinton High School in The Bronx, and I were the only two African American players in our position group on Temple University’s freshman football team. (In those days NCAA rules prohibited freshmen from playing varsity in football and basketball.) We were preparing to go against each other in a drill. One of the assistant coaches, a man possessing a honeyed Southern accent that made a Pittsburgh kid like me just a wee nervous, asked, “Which one of you is going to play?”
It was a question that was only directed at the two of us when we were pitted against each other. I knew exactly what was meant. Two years earlier I had read an excellent series of articles on the black athlete written by Jack Olson of Sports Illustrated that laid out the practice. Quotas were the way of things in many, if not most, colleges in those days, except in the South, where strict segregation still held sway. The point was, regardless of what our skill levels were relative to our other peers, only one of us was going to play. (Writer’s Note: I won! Sorry Fred.)
A similar mentality, with systems to match, was in play throughout professional sports during that era, including teams like the Washington Redskins and the Boston Red Sox, who preferred the Southern approach until the proverbial gun was placed to their heads.
The path to racial/ethnic progress in football, and elsewhere in society, has been characterized by incrementalism and a certain counterintuitive nonlinearity. For example, there were some black players in the league during the 1930s, but they were banned from participating at all in the 1940s. This latter fact will be revisited later.
During the time that Bill Nunn, and then later Chuck Noll, came to the team, players on NFL rosters were identified by race. This practice stopped in Pittsburgh after the arrival of Noll. Segregation by position was also common practice. Blacks were steered away from leadership and ‘cerebral’ positions such as center, middle linebacker, safety, and, of course, quarterback.
Some of these practices were eroded through the competition for talent posed by rival leagues such as the American Football League (AFL,) the World Football League, (WFL,) and the United States Football League (USFL.) The sole survivor was the AFL, with whom the NFL merged in the 1960s. Because of the vision and acumen brought to bear by the Rooneys, Nunn and Noll, the restrictions traditionally in place based upon race, upon the archaic notions of proper body types, and where players attended college were shattered under their regime.
What resulted was, arguably, the greatest team ever assembled. Four Lombardi trophies constitutes a persuasive case for diversity, but even today it remains a work in progress. Most recently, Javon Hargrave stands as an example of a player who was probably overlooked and underappreciated to a degree by some, undoubtedly because of the perceived stature of his school or conference.
In the traditional mindset, Ben Roethlisberger, James Harrison and Antonio Brown could be subjected to a double whammy – rejection due to both their small conference affiliation (MAC) and nonstandard body types. A generation ago, rookie quarterback Joshua Dobbs, by virtue of race and athleticism, would have been routinely steered to wide receiver or defensive back.
As I believe I have stated on other occasions, the current dominance of African Americans on NFL rosters obscures the fact that it has only been approximately thirty years since Doug Williams’ astonishing second quarter performance led Washington to victory in Super Bowl XXII. This slammed the door on the debate on whether black quarterbacks could perform at a championship level, and assured black players a fair chance to compete for every spot on a team’s roster.
It has been a slower, tougher slog in the managerial areas. Minorities at the general manager level has been a 21st Century phenomena only, and the walls to ownership have yet to be breeched. But let’s focus on coaching.
The Rooney Rule and a clear-eyed view of ‘affirmative action’.
In another life I worked as a director of career development services for a large state university. One thing generally recognized was the existence of two robust job markets. One was based loosely on the concept of merit, the other on relationships. A current example of the latter are recent statistics which show that forty percent of job hires go to people who know – have a relationship with – someone in the hiring organization.
It needs to be pointed out that the reputation for merit systems being ‘fair’ and relational methods as ‘corrupt’ are simplistic and often inaccurate. It’s what AND who you know.
Understanding these two systems, their scope and their strengths and weaknesses, is important to this discussion. They assist in comprehending the role that affirmative action efforts, properly applied, can play in mitigating practices that have been shaped by racist and other discriminatory legacies. The Rooney Rule is an excellent example of properly applied affimative action.
The NFL is a relational job market. If the Los Angeles Chargers have a head coaching vacancy, it is unlikely you will see it advertised in the Los Angeles Times or on job sites. This does not have to be a problem in and of itself. In theory, the specialized nature of the work and culture require “insider” candidates.
However, there is a danger that these types of cultures can become insular and incestuous, both in terms of talent and ideas. Nunn forcefully pointed this out to me, in respect to nepotism. Would anyone like to make the case that the Ryan, Shanahan, Shula, Harbaugh and Schottenheimer families, just to name a few, are so gifted in the coaching profession to justify their disproportionate record of job opportunities in the league?
Bringing it closer to home, a key reason that the Steelers failed for decades competitively was because cronyism guided Art Rooney Sr.’s coaching hires. Dan Rooney didn’t approach Bill Nunn out of idle curiosity. He was looking for a solution, and was smart, humble and had enough integrity to seize the opportunity. In so doing he changed not just the fortunes of his own organization but also had a broader influence on the trajectory of the entire sports culture and beyond.
The solution was that what is biologically true is also culturally true as well. Diversity is a good thing. The logic of this, most likely unassailable in a rational environment, becomes almost hopelessly distorted and confused, with the pathologized influence of race not helping matters at all.
It bears repeating that although race is unavoidably central to diversity efforts, due to its outrageously shameless and unrepentant influence on our society, the mindset is more widespread and far reaching. Noll himself was an out-of-the-box talent who might not have had a decent opportunity outside of the Paul Brown system. Former Steelers tight end Randy Grossman had flatly stated that he would not have gotten an opportunity at all with many teams because of his body type. In this sense, race differs not so much in kind as in degree.
Maybe the best way to bring this home is to remind the reader that Vince Lombardi, the coach for whom the championship trophy is named, did not have a long career because of discrimination in his day targeted toward Italians.
Additionally, because the characteristics of the relational market are not recognized by many, it becomes easy to assume that competency (merit) is being deemphasized in favor of a standard where mere participation holds the highest value. In fact, relationship and competency are, to a degree, inseparable elements. They cannot be parsed in the often strained manner under the merit context in which we talk about an applicant being more or less qualified. Being part of the relational network is a qualification. And if you are not part of that network, other qualifications become irrelevant. Participation IS competency.
Art Shell, Hall of Fame offensive tackle and an insider of the Oakland Raiders family, was the first African American head coach of the modern era. Joe Greene, who is as much an insider in the Steelers community as anyone not name Rooney, was a top candidate for the head coaching job when Chuck Noll retired.
The problem came in two parts, one of which the Rooney Rule has attempted to address in a straightforward manner – gaining access to the network. The second part of the problem had to be addressed in a different manner.
To be continued…