By Travis Caldwell, Ray Sanchez and David Close, CNN
(CNN) — NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday admitted the league has fallen short by “a long shot” in ensuring head coaching opportunities for Black and minority candidates and vowed to see if policies need to change.
“I don’t think you take anything off the table until you have people look at that, help us independently say, Is there something flawed with our process?” he said of the league’s embattled interview process. “And if there is, What can we do to resolve that and fix that?”
Goodell’s remarks, during the “State of the League” address leading up to the Super Bowl, follow a federal class-action lawsuit filed last week by former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores — who accused the league, along with three NFL franchises, of alleged racial discrimination.
Goodell noted what he called the league’s “tremendous amount of progress” in pursuit of diversity but acknowledged those advances have not reached the head coaching ranks.
The commissioner said the league “had really focused to try to get the kind of results that we would expect and we fell short … by a long shot.”
Flores and other critics of the NFL are calling into question the effectiveness of the Rooney Rule, which was adopted in 2003 and at the time mandated teams conduct at least one head-coaching interview with a minority candidate.
“So what we’re going to do is step back and look at everything we’re doing today,” Goodell said Wednesday.
“Everything from looking at the Rooney Rule and seeing what changes should be made to that — if any changes or should it be removed, which some people have suggested. All of those things are part of that.”
Goodell, who has headed the NFL since 2006, regularly participates in his “State of the League” address leading up to the Super Bowl, but Wednesday was not the first time he has had to speak about team hiring practices. The subject dominated this year’s event.
“We won’t tolerate racism. We won’t tolerate discrimination,” Goodell said. “If there are policies that we need to modify, we’re going to do that … If we see evidence of discrimination, we will deal with that in a very serious way.”
At last year’s news conference, Goodell noted minority coaches were selected for two of the seven available head coaching jobs and said it “wasn’t what we expected, and it’s not what we expect going forward.”
The league — which had just finished a tumultuous 2020 season amid the Covid-19 pandemic — pointed to three franchises hiring Black general managers as well as improved diversity among coordinator positions, according to NFL.com. Yet Goodell said, “We’re not satisfied, and we feel like we can do better and we’re going to.”
One year earlier, Goodell again expressed concerns over a lack of minority head coaching hires.
“Clearly, we are not where we want to be on this level,” he said, according to the league’s website. “We have a lot of work that’s gone into not only the Rooney Rule but our policies overall. It’s clear we need to change and do something different.”
The Rooney Rule was amended twice over the last two years, with the league stipulating that teams interview at least two external minority candidates for open head coaching positions and at least one external minority candidate for a coordinator job.
But now, a league in which roughly 70% players are Black faces further scrutiny for only having two Black head coaches among its 32 franchises.
Flores lawsuit alleges team wrongdoing
The lack of opportunities provided to Black and minority head coaching candidates is a key part of Flores’ class-action lawsuit.
Flores, who is Black, was fired from his job as head coach of the Dolphins last month despite his team winning eight of their last nine games this season and nearly making the playoffs. Flores had two winning seasons in his three years in Miami.
The 40-year-old says in his lawsuit that a later interview with the New York Giants for their vacant head coaching job had been conducted under disingenuous circumstances, as Flores had found out three days before his interview that the Giants had already decided to hire another coach.
Flores told CNN’s “New Day” that he went through a “wave of emotions” upon finding out that he was attending what he called a “sham interview.”
Flores alleges in his lawsuit that the interview was a ruse so the Giants could “demonstrate falsely to League Commissioner Roger Goodell and the public at large that it was in compliance with the Rooney Rule.”
The NFL and the three franchises named in Flores’ suit — the Dolphins, the Giants and the Denver Broncos, who interviewed Flores in 2019 — have all denied any wrongdoing.
Criticism mounts against league
The NFL will review its diversity, equity and inclusion policies, Goodell said Saturday in a leaguewide memo sent to club executives and presidents, calling the lack of Black head coaches “unacceptable.”
No Black first-time head coaches were hired in the latest offseason cycle. Lovie Smith, who is Black and was recently hired by the Houston Texans, has previous head coaching experience with two other teams. The other Black head coach in the league, Mike Tomlin, has led the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2007.
There are two other non-Black minority head coaches — Ron Rivera of the Washington Commanders and Robert Saleh of the New York Jets. The Dolphins, who fired Flores at the end of last season, have hired Mike McDaniel, who is multiracial.
“We understand the concerns expressed by Coach Flores and others this week,” Goodell wrote. “While the legal process moves forward, we will not wait to reassess and modify our strategies to ensure that they are consistent with our values and longstanding commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Goodell met with civil rights leaders Monday to hear concerns about whether minority candidates are receiving fair consideration for positions.
“However well-intentioned, the effect of the Rooney Rule has been for team decision-makers to regard interviews with candidates of color as an extraneous step, rather than an integral part of the hiring process,” National Urban League President and CEO Marc H. Morial said in a statement Monday.
“The Rooney Rule has been proven to be something the owners used to deceptively appear to be seeking real diversity,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who was also in attendance Monday. “We must have firm targets and timetables.”
The NFL said in a statement after Monday’s meeting, “We had a productive and thoughtful conversation as the NFL shares the goal of ensuring that everyone has equitable access to opportunity. We look forward to continuing the dialogue.”