Thursday saw the passing of one of the most effective sports owners, on and off the field, in living memory. Dan Rooney ran the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1975 to 2002, having succeeded his father Art and was then succeeded by his son Art II.
The Rooney family has spread pretty far and wide in influence and profile. You've probably heard of his grand-nieces, actresses Rooney Mara and Kate Mara. The original Art was more of a behind the scenes man, funding the Steelers in the team's early days on the back of a big win at the Saratoga racetrack. For the bulk of his time with the Steelers, Art Sr was known solely for his involvement with the NFL team. His notable funding of the Homestead Grays was only revealed in a 1981 interview.
Four decades prior the Grays were part of the old Negro Leagues. An unfortunate necessity to give African Americans access to top level baseball. Segregation was rife in the sport and sides in the Negro Leagues often struggled financially irrespective of the talent. Rooney wasn't some saint or saviour, he just plain didn't like the deal they had and he liked baseball so he did what he could to help.
Dan Rooney took the same mindset as his father. He wasn't trying to be some great standard bearer. He just didn't have time for bad deals. In a horribly conservative league like the NFL of old, and in some respects still today, Rooney was amongst the first owners to even contemplate hiring African-American coaches or administrative personnel. When the rest of the market was acting blindly stupid by not hiring talent based on race, Rooney was smarter and found good staff.
The Steelers benefitted on the field and started winning, a lot. The club which had struggled to compete through its first four decades became a force in the 1970s as it racked up the first four of its six Super Bowl titles. Rooney never let the dominance dehumanise him. The family's ties to the city were strong and he actively looked to use the influence he had.
Earlier today a Pittsburgh native I know shared a story of when her younger brother was badly ill in hospital during those dominant years. The sports star going to visit a sick kid narrative is well worn and somewhat expected. What stood out here was that the players visited and then kept visiting. It was just another sick kid to them but they realised that coming in those extra times would do that little bit for the youngster who was ill.
It was something that wasn't right and it needed fixing. It was as simple as that
That type of small stuff was essentially how Rooney viewed issues. Something's not right, how can it be made better. It was pretty simple humanity and that probably explains why he always played down his role in one of the most progressive achievements in the history of sports.
The Rooney Rule was instituted in 2003 requiring all NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate for a head coaching role. Greater representation of minority coaches had been on the agenda for a while from activists but progress wasn't great. Excluding Fritz Pollard, who had coached in the 1920s, only six head coaches on NFL teams during the modern era prior to the rule's implementation were not white dudes. That might not be institutionalised racism but it's definitely an awful case of unconscious bias.
Rooney essentially rammed the rule through single-handedly, even though it was essentially to the detriment of his own side. This was far bigger than a single team winning games. It was something that wasn't right and it needed fixing. It was as simple as that.
The decision by the NFL to subsequently fine the Detroit Lions $300,000 for being the first team to breach it helped enshrine it as more than tokenism. The Lions trotted out an excuse that minority candidates refused to be interviewed as they assumed the hiring of eventual coach Steve Mariucci was a fait accompli. The fine was a sign that there would be no excuses and the rule has been extended to cover executive roles in administration as well now.
Prior to the Rooney Rule, 6 per cent of head coaches in the NFL were from minorities. Now it's up to 22 per cent. As it happens Mike Tomlin, the last head coach hired by the Steelers during Rooney's lifetime, is African American but Rooney always insisted it wasn't because of the rule. Tomlin won the sixth and most recent of Pittsburgh's Super Bowl championships in his second season and has never posted a losing record through a decade at the helm. Like I said, Rooney was smart at spotting talent.
Much was made of Rooney's role as US Ambassador to Ireland upon his passing. While somewhat understandable given how all news is local, the why behind him getting that position was what really mattered. Rooney's approach to life, much like his father's, was seeing something that wasn't right and looking to help make it better. Whether that was a sick kid in hospital or a rule that changed a sport, it was a job to get done.