- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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If you take the emotion out of it and forget, say, the outrage at the way the Seattle Seahawks dragged the Vikings' Leslie Frazier through an apparently sham interview for a head-coaching job that USC's Pete Carroll already has, Saturday could go down as a terrific -- not bad -- day for the Rooney Rule. The rule didn't just get weaker. Thanks to Seattle, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell should say the need to toughen the rule is impossible to ignore any longer.
So thank the Seahawks for blowing off the rule in spirit, if nothing else. Because as much as the Rooney Rule is applauded for the way it's helped qualified African-American candidates such as Frazier finally get interviews or be hired as head coaches in the NFL, and as much as the NFL likes to pat itself on the back for being the first league to adopt such a rule at all, the unvarnished truth is that nothing about the Rooney Rule -- even the creation of the rule itself -- was accomplished without some heavy coercive pressure being applied from outside the league offices.
Remember, the NFL didn't set up the 2002 commission that came up with Rooney Rule until two attorneys, one of them the late O.J. Simpson defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran, threatened to sue the league months earlier. A watchdog group, the Fritz Pollard Alliance, now monitors how well teams comply, along with the NFL. The same group -- buttressed by a persuasive argument that attorney Douglas Proxmire published in a December 2008 paper for the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy -- succeeded just months ago in getting the NFL to extend the Rooney Rule to the hiring of general managers and other front-office personnel.
The Seahawks case should be another pivot point. More pressure needs to be exerted on Goodell now. His remarks, made before Saturday's Bengals-Jets AFC playoff game, that he believes the Seahawks' interview of Frazier was done "in earnest," aren't good enough. Goodell should have added what he knows or why we should believe him.
The NFL hasn't always been forthcoming on sensitive issues like this (see its history of resisting criticism for the way concussions were handled until such a stance was untenable). End-arounds like the one the Seahawks appear to be running are becoming an annual occurrence in the league. Over in Buffalo last week, Perry Fewell, who is black, was being made to interview for the same Bills head-coaching job he had just filled on an interim basis for seven games, going 3-4. Before that, Tony Sparano's fait accompli hiring in Miami drew scrutiny in 2008. (Frazier was brought in for a perfunctory interview there, too.) Before that? The St. Louis Rams tried to make Jim Haslett their next head coach by asking the league if writing a promotion into his contract if he won six games while he was interim coach would relieve them from having to interview a minority candidate. The answer: No.
To paraphrase Allen Iverson: We're just talking about an interview, people. An interview.
Instead, there's a bad pattern developing here. So again: Thanks, Seattle. If it can be proved the Seahawks or anyone else screwed up some very easy rules to follow, Goodell should punish them worse than any NFL team has been punished for violating the Rooney Rule before.
And he shouldn't stop there.
It's become pretty clear that bad publicity or potential fines for violating the Rooney Rule aren't a big enough disincentive to test it.
Right now, Goodell has the power to fine teams as much as $500,000 for a violation, which is $300,000 more than the Detroit Lions' Matt Millen was fined in 2003 after five African-American candidates refused to interview, knowing the deal to hire Steve Mariucci was already done. (In a gorgeous bit of forethought, then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue specified that the Lions couldn't pay Millen's fine for him, a caveat that should remain standard operating procedure.)
But why stop at fines? Make the penalties tougher all the way around.
If Goodell was willing to think creatively and put draft picks on the table as a possible remedy two weeks ago when playoff teams such as the Indianapolis Colts created an uproar by not trying their best to win late-season games -- and how serious the league really was about dealing with that "integrity" issue is questionable -- then he should cook up a similarly biting penalty for anyone who violates the Rooney Rule going forward.
Most GMs would lose both of their eyeteeth and all their molars rather than cough up a high draft pick. So start taking away draft picks say, one draft choice a year for every season in the contract of the new coach or GM who was hired before minority candidates were given a fair interview for the job.
Then keep going.
An NFL owner such as the Seahawks' Paul Allen, one of the founders of Microsoft, spends more on a tank of fuel for the football field-sized yacht he takes down to Cabo on fishing trips than the $500,000 maximum Goodell can fine him right now.
So do more: Deduct the fine for violating the Rooney Rule from a team's salary cap -- but treble the cap hit, like they do for damages in court cases.
The league can't tell teams whom to hire. It can't X-ray the soul of someone like Allen or Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke to see if he's lying about whether Frazier's interview was legit. But the NFL has to look into how ESPN's Adam Schefter and others were already reporting Carroll had a five-year, $35 million deal in place by the time Leiweke was interviewing Frazier on Saturday morning in Minneapolis. Goodell insisted Saturday that Carroll's contract wasn't "a done deal." He should at least explain why.
The NFL can tighten up the way interviews are requested, scheduled and conducted even more than it currently does. Let Goodell exercise broad discretion. Make the threshold of proof for what constitutes a violation lower and more forbidding. Heck, force teams to make their first contact with prospective hires and schedule all interviews through a league-approved middleman, and if you're afraid of leaks, outsource the job to some white-glove firm that's expert at guarding secrets like the results of the Academy Awards. Whatever. Just make the process work better than it does.
At first blush, the Seahawks' handling of Carroll's hiring looks an awful lot like the Lions' pursuit of Mariucci did, except that Frazier went ahead Saturday with the interview. But no matter what comes of this in the days ahead -- if the Seahawks' argument prevails that they couldn't fire Jim Mora until they approached Carroll to gauge his interest, and they couldn't interview Frazier until they fired Mora -- the Rooney Rule still needs to be tightened up.
Make the penalties so prohibitive it will be unthinkable to risk a violation.
There's enough here for Goodell to act.
And we can thank the Seahawks for that.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maybe the Seahawks obeyed the letter of the Rooney Rule in their efforts to hire Pete Carroll, but the NFL can't ignore the way Seattle tarnished its spirit.