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Super Bowl week brings harsh reality about Rooney Rule

Updated January 29, 2020 - 7:42 pm

MIAMI — Eric Bieniemy is a box that has been checked time and again by NFL teams, the depiction of a rule that was flawed from its birth.

Head coaches are a major topic at most Super Bowls, and this week is no different. Kyle Shanahan of the 49ers is being lauded as the game’s best play-caller and Andy Reid of the Chiefs for being near the top of the list of coaches who haven’t won the season’s final game.

They get asked loads of questions, and for good reason.

You won’t hear as much about or from Bieniemy, who coordinates Kansas City’s track meet of an offense. His name might routinely lead any conversation about which assistants across the league are most prepared to become a head coach, but that’s where talk ends.

It feels as if he might as well be on another continent when it comes to earning such promotion.

Bieniemy is also black.

We meet again, Rooney Rule.

It was well meaning in theory and yet seriously imperfect in scope, the edict brought down 18 years ago that teams must interview ethnic-minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs.

Some numbers: Of five head coaching positions that opened this season, only the Redskins hired a minority candidate in Ron Rivera, who is Hispanic.

Last year, one of eight such hires was a minority.

There are 32 head coaches.

Three are African American.

“Clearly, we are not where we want to be,” commissioner Roger Goodell said Wednesday during his annual Super Bowl news conference. “We need to change and do something different. There’s no reason to expect we are going to have a different outcome next year without those kind of changes.”

Problem: There isn’t much he can do.

Goodell isn’t big on specifics regarding the issue, saying only that the NFL has solicited a number of outside opinions and will reach beyond its assigned committees and other prescribed resources to seek solutions.

But short of fining or withholding draft picks from teams that don’t hire minorities — steps that would and should never be taken — the NFL’s power is nil.

You hope more diversity would find top positions in a league in which 70 percent of players are black. You want things to be more progressive. But at day’s end, an owner has the right to make any hire deemed best by the organization.

Might be wrong. Might be incredibly shortsighted.

But such is the capacity held by those who spend billions of dollars to own a team.

It’s their league. They adopted the Rooney Rule. They have final say on everything.

“It’s not for me to sit here and judge,” Bieniemy said. “More than anything, I have had the opportunity to go through the interview process and sit and talk with teams. I can’t force anyone to hire me. But if a team wants me, it’s going to get the best of who I am in every way. If they don’t hire me, it’s OK. I still have a very good job.”

No simple answers

His is an interesting case study, having played nine NFL seasons and now ascending through the coaching ranks of college and pro for 18 more. He coordinates the league’s most dynamic offense led by one of its most dynamic quarterbacks, and tradition holds that such a position would put Bieniemy on a fast-track pipeline to becoming a head coach.

It just hasn’t happened.

Could legal action for discrimination be brought against the owners? I suppose. Such threats have been made over the years. Probably wouldn’t stand much chance.

Could the league do a better job gathering those qualified minority coaches in a place where owners and general managers could meet and get to know them on a more personal basis? Of course.

Is there any reasonable force that can push owners on this? Not really.

“I think it’s weird when they say minority coaching candidates aren’t getting jobs, because (NFL players) are a majority of African American and minority people,” 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman said. “These coaches would be among our majority. And for these coaches not to get jobs? Minority players in our league are getting jobs.

“The ones that are getting a look are just getting it so they can check the Rooney Rule box off.”

Eric Bieniemy seems to be leading the NFL in that category.

The Rooney Rule never stood a chance, unless those who created it took the concept seriously, and they haven’t.

Well meaning in theory.

Seriously imperfect in scope.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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