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Rooney Rule opens doors, but only so much

Results are viewed in black and white, intent in shades of gray. That’s why we talk about the “letter” and the “spirit” of a law, why it’s possible to see the NFL’s Rooney Rule as a success on the one hand and a charade on the other.

The league policy named after former Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney made headlines recently, in large part because the hiring of Mike Shanahan in Washington last week and Pete Carroll’s ascension to the head coaching job in Seattle, which could be announced as early as Monday, both appeared to be little more than half-hearted efforts at compliance.

Yet there’s no question the league policy requiring teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and front-office football vacancies has had the desired effect. Only five blacks had previously coached in the NFL, beginning with Art Shell in 1989, and only two held the position when the rule was adopted in 2003. The following year there were five, and between six and seven every year since, including two of the last three Super Bowl winners.

Those numbers have some questioning whether the Rooney Rule has outlived its usefulness.

Owners pay hundreds of millions for teams, tens of millions for players and nearly every one — as we’ve noted before — would hire Satan to coach them if that would make their franchises successful.

“Certainly there have been some ’token’ interviews and there’s always going to be organizations that circumvent the rule, for whatever reason,” Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida, said in a telephone interview Sunday.

“But overall, no one disputes it’s contributed significantly to the diversity we’re seeing today. It took a long time and the threat of a lawsuit to convince the NFL that everybody benefits from ensuring the (hiring) process is open. All the Rooney Rule was supposed to do was get people into the room who otherwise might never have had a shot.”

That might be small consolation to Redskins secondary coach Jerry Gray, whose interview took place even before Washington formally axed head coach Jim Zorn; or to Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, whose 11th-hour interview Saturday by Seahawks chief executive officer Tod Leiweke was designed to do little more than quiet the growing clamor between Jim Mora’s firing and Carrol’s hiring.

NFL commssioner Roger Goodell was serving as counsel to his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, when the Rooney Rule was adopted, so there’s no doubt he knows its requirements. And even though he defended both teams — “I can’t give all the details, but they’re in compliance,” he said — he left many people questioning whether either club acted in good faith.

“That is not what the Rooney Rule is supposed to be … you make up your mind and then interview a candidate for it, anyway, just to satisfy the rule,” retired coach and Super Bowl winner Tony Dungy said.

Like Goodell, John Wooten has caught some criticism for suggesting Washington and Seattle acted properly. Wooten, whose career in the NFL spanned 50 years as a player and front-office executive, heads the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which provides networking, mentoring and career development opportunities for minority jobseekers, as well as advising teams on candidates.

He insisted one more time Sunday that both the Gray and Frazier interviews had “been done the right way.”

But a moment later, Wooten added, “I’ve been around long enough to know you can’t legislate people’s feelings. All you can do is put rules in place and hope the spirit of the individuals involved are willing to go forward. People always have in their mind who they want. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying to get them to open their eyes.

“Mr. Rooney said it best: ’Once they see the possibilities, the teams that want to circumvent the rules, that don’t care whether they’re missing out on an entire pool of guys with unique abilities and a proven work ethic, well, why not just let them suffer?”’

But it’s not just teams with bad intent that wind up losing out. Wooten tells the story of his rookie year in Cleveland in 1959, when he played for the late Paul Brown and first met his son, Mike. The two have been friends ever since, staying in touch over the years as Brown inherited control of the Cincinnati Bengals nearly two decades ago and went though a succession of better-known, but ultimately unsuccessful coaches.

“I know Mike well enough to say he wasn’t excluding people, but he told me when the Rooney Rule came in in 2003, he started looking at more than the same old circles. He wasn’t looking only at minority candidates, but once he talked to Marvin Lewis, he knew he had the right guy.

“And that’s all the rule supposed to do,” Wooten said, “help teams go into interviews with an open mind.”

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)

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