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Roger Goodell exposes the NFL's Rooney Rule as a farce

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

MINNEAPOLIS — Roger Goodell had his bucket and curtain Wednesday. And he used both adeptly in his state of the league address, bailing Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis out of a mess and then concealing precisely how the whole fiasco was so easily put to rest.

The Rooney Rule, for all intents and purposes, now looks remarkably easy for NFL teams to violate. Even when a team publicly admits to breaking the spirit of the rule’s entire existence – which is assumed to happen repeatedly in NFL hires – it still won’t be held accountable for it.

That’s the message Goodell sent Wednesday during his state of the league address, in which the NFL again insisted the Raiders were in compliance of the league’s Rooney Rule – which requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and high-level executive positions. This declaration comes in spite of Raiders owner Mark Davis stating flatly that he was confident that he received an “all-in” declaration from Jon Gruden during a Christmas Eve meeting last year, in which the Raiders owner had moved to tap Gruden as his next head coach. That “all-in” meeting came before head coach Jack Del Rio was fired or the Raiders had secured any minority interviews for the job. And Davis stating it opened a can of worms because it looked clear that a verbal agreement had been made.

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But Goodell once again got his bucket out and started bailing water for the Raiders, saying a tacit agreement between Gruden and the Raiders ultimately wasn’t the case.

“There was a full investigation of that by our staff,” Goodell said. “They went through it in great detail. They spoke to every one of the participants to make sure that we checked the facts. I would say the conclusion of the investigation doesn’t jibe with [the Raiders having violated the rule] and that it was actually in compliance with the Rooney Rule. I think we have a disagreement on the facts. We’ve spoke to every single one of those individuals to make sure that wasn’t the case.”

Oakland Raiders new head coach Jon Gruden, right, and Raiders owner Mark Davis appear together to announce Gruden’s return to Oakland. (AP)

Thus far, nobody in the public space has seen that investigation. And Goodell didn’t offer what “the facts” consisted of. Instead, it was more of a We looked into that … it’s all good … trust us kind of moment. Never mind that there has been a litany of reasons to distrust NFL investigations the past few seasons.

What’s more troubling in this case is the lack of transparency – even in simple explanation. Consider what Davis said of his meeting with Gruden, and the whole idea of the two sides being “all-in” on an NFL head coaching job. That’s what this meeting was framed as by Davis himself: The Raiders owner long coveting Gruden’s return as head coach, and his Christmas Eve meeting to determine whether Gruden would be “all-in” for a return.

“That’s the term that we were using in our discussions and everything – ‘Are you all-in?,’ ” Davis told reporters when describing his pursuit of Gruden. “And I never wavered from all-in. And this time, he didn’t waver either.”

Within 12 days of that meeting, Gruden and the Raiders had hammered out a massive 10-year, $100-million contract. Which sounds pretty “all-in” to anyone and everyone on this planet.

Prior to the league completing its entirely opaque investigation into whether the Rooney Rule was violated, a Pandora’s Box of questions had been raised. If the Christmas Eve “all-in” meeting was a verbal agreement between two sides to work together – and only an absolute fool could believe it wasn’t – then the Raiders had clearly arrived at their head coaching decision before satisfying the Rooney Rule. Or at the very least, Oakland violated the living hell out of the spirit of the rule.

It also triggered all manners of questions about whether the Rooney Rule had an elephant-sized loophole. If you secure a head coach before the current head coach is even fired, does the Rooney Rule even apply? The answer from the league on that? Yes.

Here’s the thing, though: Whenever a head coaching job opens, the Rooney Rule goes into effect. Which, again, given the Christmas Eve meeting, suggests the Raiders were instantly in violation of the rule the moment they fired Jack Del Rio. And the only way to not be in violation of it would be to hire someone else other than the “all-in” Jon Gruden.

This seems to make sense, but Goodell and the NFL says no – that’s not how this went down. The league did its investigation and found that Oakland interviewed tight ends coach Bobby Johnson and USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin before Gruden was officially hired by the team. That word “officially” is important. Because that’s where it creates the often farcical space that the Rooney Rule resides in.

And that space is this: In application, the Rooney Rule mandates that NFL teams give minority candidates nothing more than a cursory shot at a job. A token interview, if you prefer the more loaded term. In essence, you can pick your head coach and decide that they’re your hire – but you have to keep a lid on that fact until you can get some minority interviews under your belt. In the interim, play the semantics game of how a guy like Jon Gruden hasn’t been hired yet and you’re still going through your process.

Even if the concealment of intention isn’t accomplished, it’s going to work out. Davis proved that. He opened his mouth and raised some eyebrows by gushing over how long he has been smitten with Gruden and how he believed he finally got his guy on Christmas Eve. In all honesty, his statement could only have been more troubling for the NFL if he had actually said, “I hired Jon on Christmas Eve.”

He didn’t go that far. And that provided the league with wiggle room which can stretch a long way. The term “all-in” can be painted as something far more vague. And when combined with the term “officially hired,” it’s impenetrable.

Of course, the rational public has known this about the Rooney Rule for a while. In many instances, it’s a public relations concept. An engineered win for the NFL to say that teams are complying with the rule and minority candidates are getting in front of owners that they might not be exposed to otherwise.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell speaks during a news conference in advance of the Super Bowl 52. (AP)

The shame is that the NFL would ever paint it as anything more than that. That Goodell might suggest that coaching interviews with Johnson and Martin were anything but speed bumps on the way to Gruden. That’s reality. That’s what they were. Yet you had Goodell suggesting something more on Wednesday when he described the great benefits of the exposure the Rooney Rule provides.

“That’s where the Rooney Rule really works,” Goodell said. “In the sense of making sure that every club is required to not only interview, but also consider seriously candidates with diverse backgrounds and make sure that they’re hiring the best people.”

Does the Rooney Rule get minority candidates in front of owners? Yes. Does it potentially create a space for learning and growing and educating within a process? Sure. But can the NFL say it makes owners “consider seriously candidates with diverse backgrounds?”

No. It can’t.

Here’s the hard truth: The NFL wants to have it all with the Rooney Rule. It wants to be able to say that it’s getting diverse candidates job interviews. It wants to say that all of those candidates are being taken seriously. And when an owner like Mark Davis essentially blatantly states that he violated the rule, the NFL wants to say, “We did an internal investigation and it’s all A-OK. But we don’t feel compelled to explain the specifics of why or how we arrived at this conclusion.”

In 2018, the base mechanics of the Rooney Rule may work. Interviews will continue to take place before “official” coaching hires. And some additional boxes will necessitate checkmarks that otherwise might not exist.

But the spirit of getting ironclad opportunities for minority head coaches and executives is a hopeful reach at times. Maybe many times. And when an NFL owner opens his mouth and makes that clear, it’s a shame the league breaks out its bucket and pulls back the curtain, bailing and concealing.

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