Trying to come to grips with a coach’s lawsuit, the Rooney Rule, the Bears and Jim Harbaugh

The NFL has done a rotten job of hiring Black head coaches. Also, why couldn’t the Bears have hired a certain Michigan coach?

SHARE Trying to come to grips with a coach’s lawsuit, the Rooney Rule, the Bears and Jim Harbaugh
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh looks on before the Dec. 31 College Football Playoff semifinal against Georgia.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh looks on before the Dec. 31 College Football Playoff semifinal against Georgia.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Two things are true:

  • The Rooney Rule is a joke. It’s the NFL’s limp attempt to show it cares about hiring Black head coaches when the results show it doesn’t.
  • If they had the chance, the Bears should have hired the very white Jim Harbaugh, who talked with the Vikings about their vacant head coaching position but reportedly has decided to stay at the University of Michigan.

Do those seemingly opposing opinions make me a hypocrite? Probably. Maybe. I don’t know.

In a league in which about 58% of the players are African American, it’s scandalous that there’s just one Black head coach, the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin. Former Miami coach Brian Flores filed a class-action lawsuit against the NFL and its 32 teams on Tuesday, alleging racial discrimination. He claims that the Giants knew they were going to hire Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who is white, as their head coach even before Flores had his interview with the team. Flores is Black.

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and you don’t need a lawyer to know which great white way the league goes. But if there’s anything the NFL understands more than window-dressing diversity efforts, it’s the threat of legal action. Here’s hoping Flores’ lawsuit brings about much-needed change.

While at the same time wondering why the Bears and Harbaugh couldn’t have joined forces.

My quandary might serve as an example of how something that should be simple — racial equality — can get fuzzy. I can argue that Matt Eberflus, the man the Bears did hire as their head coach, is no more qualified to lead a team than any number of Black coaches. He was the coordinator of a very good Colts defense the past four seasons. Maybe he’ll turn into a great head coach for the Bears, but there’s nothing about his record and background that makes it obvious right now.

Harbaugh, on the other hand, has had success as a college head coach at San Diego, Stanford and Michigan, and as an NFL head coach with the 49ers. He is beyond qualified. All the things that are said about him — that he’s difficult to deal with, that he’s too demanding, that he flames out quickly in any job he takes — might be true, but there is no arguing his accomplishments.

Some fans believe that Harbaugh, a former Bears quarterback, would have been a bad fit in Chicago. It wouldn’t be surprising if ownership had wanted a head coach with softer edges. The McCaskeys probably are still in counseling from dealing with Mike Ditka.

But Harbaugh is hardly a retread. That’s the most galling hire of all if you’re a Black candidate who just wants a first chance to show you can do the job. The NFL’s hiring history is full of retreads.

The league instituted the Rooney Rule in 2003 to increase the number of African-American head coaches and senior football operations executives. It requires teams to interview at least two minority candidates when they have an opening for a head coach. Although there have been some gains, especially on the personnel side, the rule has led to a long line of Black coaches getting interviewed and being passed over for head-coaching jobs. It’s resulted in angry minority candidates who feel used by a system put in place to make the NFL look like forward thinkers. Flores’ lawsuit brought the concept of sham interviews more into the light.

The difficult part is not in understanding why one team hires a white head coach. It’s in understanding why, in this day and age, everybody wants to hire white head coaches.

Let’s say you’re an owner in need of a leader of men. You’re sold that a particular coach who is white will be great, but you have the spirit of Rooney Rule weighing on you. What do you do? It’s probably what all NFL owners are asking themselves today — why can’t I hire the coach I want?

The answer is simple and painful: The league has a moral obligation to hire more Black head coaches because its record on diversity hires is dismal, especially for an enterprise built on the backs of Black athletes. For the longest time, there were no African-American quarterbacks in the NFL, the absence implying that they lacked the intelligence to play the position. The dearth of Black coaches seems to be implying something similar.

It’s not that hard, folks. There are 14 Black coaches in the NBA. Somehow, life has gone on.

Life would go on with more Black head coaches in the NFL, too. And yet, here I am, regretting that the Bears couldn’t find a way to get Harbaugh into their building. Maybe things aren’t always black and white.  

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