OutKick Exclusive: Super Bowl Winner Turned Congressman Not Happy With NFL’s Rooney Rule

You meet Burgess Owens today, and you’re meeting a U.S. congressman representing Utah’s fourth congressional district. You’re meeting a former NFL first-round draft pick and starting safety on the Oakland Raiders’ 1980 Super Bowl championship team.

Yes, he’s quite an impressive individual.

Did you know Burgess Owens was also among the first handful of black students to integrate Rickards High School in Tallahassee, FL in the late 1960s?

Did you know he was among the first black athletes to receive a scholarship at the University of Miami?

“I was one of four blacks to integrate my high school. I was the third black to get a scholarship to the University of Miami,” Owens said this week, speaking exclusively to OutKick. “We had a mindset back in those days because we were very proud of our race, number one, and we believed that given a chance, we could overcome anything and prove ourselves.

“That generation, it didn’t matter if we were on the football field or in the classroom, we took the simple approach that we’re just as good as anyone else and we’ll prove that by working harder than anybody else. We worked hard. We studied hard. We ran hard. We did not ask for respect, we did not demand respect. What we did was command respect based on our actions.”

It’s a different time now, and Owens, a staunch conservative, has watched the NFL try to manage issues of race with mixed results. And that disappoints Owens, especially when the conversation turns to the league’s Rooney Rule.

The Rooney Rule is an NFL policy that requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs such as general manager. The rule was established in 2003 and has been modified several times since, and yet still no one seems content with the imperfect results of the imperfect rule.

Add Owens to that group. He sees the Rooney Rule as nothing more than affirmative action, and he says affirmative action simply does not work in the real world.

“In 2003, they talked about black coaches coming in and getting interviews, and 19 years later, how many blacks do we have as NFL coaches? Five maybe? It shows they’re good at making a show, but not good at doing the real heavy lifting,” Owens said.

“Affirmative action does not belong in sports. It does not belong in business, and it does not belong on a football field. What everyone is really looking for is a meritocracy. And here we are [with the Rooney Rule] making sure one or two minorities get an interview. Why not four? Why not five? What about the other talented men and women who deserve the position but will not get the position because somebody needs to fill a quota?

“This is nothing but the worst of sports because it’s not based on sheer talent. And so this game, which is supposed to bring us together, which it has in the past … because we come together, we root for our same teams, no matter our background, our religion. We’re all on the same team. But the NFL now is run by Roger Goodell, and his leadership has divided us and this country in a big way. And I have no tolerance for what these guys are doing.”

Owens indeed believes the Rooney Rule, which is meant to open doors for minorities, has actually had a deleterious effect on the sport because it gives racists a chance to hold up an interview as evidence they’re not racists — even though they have no intention of hiring the minority.

“Sure, it has done the reverse,” Owens said. “What happens when a racist has a chance to use affirmative action? It’s a chance to use quotas. The quota is always filled. So before now, you had one [interview] per year. But what if there are three or four talented black or minority men and women who can fill those positions? Well, they’ve already filled their quota and by the perception of the people, they’ve done their job. So they’re covered.”

Owens wants the league’s interviewing and hiring practices to be about merit. The best get picked, and the rest do not.

And after a while, people see who is hiring whom, which would raise questions about certain folks. And after a while, those who succeed will be copied because that’s one NFL practice that has been used unfailingly.

“What I’m saying is if you’ve got people talented enough to do it, smart enough to do it, if you have leadership skills to do it, you should be getting your interviews and filling the jobs,” Owens said. “What we’re seeing instead is the NFL going toward race picking in order to make this work, and I’m going to call that systemic racism. It’s racist because the only way they think they can make this work out is by setting quotas.

“Keep in mind, they do not set quotas when it comes to players on the football field. They have 70 percent black players, and yet we have four [black] coaches after 20 years of this stuff. And that’s all we have. I know Americans don’t look at this because we all have lives and it’s not at the top of their priority list they can look at, but I just want to point out that the sports arena is now being used to divide us and not bring us together.”

Owens has another suggestion:

“I would first off start by firing the commissioner,” he says. “He’s been around way too long. He makes $50 million a year and he’s doing nothing but dividing our nation and using sports as a way of doing it. We need to bring people in, and I don’t know how the NFL chooses their leadership, but bring somebody in who understands we don’t judge people based on their color, not pick people based on color, but because of whether they can do a job and the leadership skills they have and not start with the premise that blacks are inherently always less qualified.

“The only reason we’d need to have affirmative action is if we believe in this particular area — in this case, coaching or leadership — we’re not capable of doing what everybody else is able to do. That’s not what I believe.

“Now there is a group of people who are perfectly happy with affirmative action and that’s the ones that get hired. The few that get hired will be very happy they were picked, but at the same time, understand this, they will never be respected at the same level as those who get positions without affirmative action. Affirmative action lessens the respect people have for you because everyone else believes they got their job through a meritocracy and you didn’t.”

Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

Written by Armando Salguero

Armando Salguero has covered the NFL since 1990 for the Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald and ESPN. He was a 2016 Associated Press Sports Editors Top 10 columnist. He is a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector and AP All-Pro team voter.

6 Comments

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  1. Fantastic article Armando!!! Awesome to hear the “counter-culture” perspective here and I’m now a Burgess Owens fan, only barely remembering his name from my childhood football days… back when I used to watch the NFL!!!!

  2. This is a good article from a good, decent, accomplished man. Burgess Owens has overcome a lot in his life through hard work and dedication. He should be an inspiration and role model to blacks- sadly, he isn’t.

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