Commentary

Opportunity walks

The Rooney Rule only offers false hope and illusory change

Originally Published: April 8, 2013
By Howard Bryant | ESPN The Magazine

Bryant IlloESPNSports can stand out as the home of meritocracy, Bryant writes.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's June 10 Taboo issue. Subscribe today!

WHEN IT COMES to race, Americans change the subject at the speed of sound. Details are too messy, truths too harsh, grievances too deep. Whether it's 1952 or yesterday, the conversation exists within a template. It's, Things are better than they were, followed by, Get over it.

The Age of Obama is a legitimately historic triumph but also proof that green can put black in the White House. On the ground floor, where most people live, the term postracial is just prettier code for Get over it, and the demand to do so has increased from sound to warp. In DC, the QB of the Redskins is hailed as a racial bridge, patently nonsensical because Robert Griffin III avoids race far better than he does Osi Umenyiora. He has added nothing of substance to a complex discussion. It is not his responsibility to do so, but it is hard to be a "bridge" when you refuse to discuss the very subject of our divisions. His standard "I was raised to be colorblind" has the exact effect as Things are better than they were.

The weight of the American ideal is heavy, its notions of opportunity and fairness colliding with the contradicting reality that people of all races and both sexes often feel. Sports ostensibly provides refuge from these racial and class battlefields; it stands out as the home of meritocracy, especially in times of the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent. When ideal and reality do collide in sports, it is not on the field but on the sidelines. The supposed remedy is a piece of nonsense called the Rooney Rule, the NFL edict requiring teams to interview a minority candidate when filling a head-coaching position. MLB enforces the same mandate, without the imprimatur of an Abraham Lincoln figure. The rule's very existence pierces the postracial myth: If today were truly postracial, it would be unnecessary to force executives to interview nonwhite candidates.

In 1975 Frank Robinson became the first black manager in baseball. Since then, in private (where they couldn't be accused of playing the dreaded "race card"), black baseball people laughed at and lamented the lack of opportunities, that a black player had to be an insider and an All-Star to get a shot at running a team. Meanwhile, black players have been in the NFL since 1946, but the league didn't integrate its head-coaching ranks until 1989. Based on some rough accounting, a Harper's Index of this story might look something like this:

Number of black managers in MLB history, starting with Robinson in 1975: 14

Number hired a second time: 6

Number hired a third time: 2

Number of white managers since Robinson got his second job in 1981: 145

Number hired a second time: 76

Number hired a third time: 41

Number of black NFL head coaches, starting with Art Shell in 1989: 14

Number hired a second time: 6

Number hired a third time: 0

Number of white coaches since 1989: 116

Number hired a second time: 40

Number hired a third time: 7

The truth is that most Americans are all too willing to accept that life isn't fair. Tall people get better jobs. A lucky few have parents with deeper bank accounts and better connections. Some who possess the desire to be the next LeBron are born with multiple sclerosis.

We accept imbalance -- except racially. While class is something that can be overcome, race has not been overcome because we refuse to answer for -- or even see -- the quagmire in front of us. Meantime, women get the sideline reporter job but not the play-by-play, while dead-end first-base-coaching jobs go to black men. The speedy white guy is now a slot receiver, and the game continues to be rigged along appearances, despite the tepid impact of the Rooney Rule in this postracial fairy tale.

Instead of confronting the appalling numbers, the easy path is to say Get over it -- especially when your résumé isn't the one landing in the garbage, when the golden handshakes aren't coming at your expense.

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