Named after Pittsburgh Steeler’s owner Dan Rooney, the “Rooney Rule” is a gracious attempt by the National Football League (NFL) to encourage the hiring of minority individuals as head coach. The rule – later extended to general manager positions – calls for “increased diversity in the NFL’s coaching ranks” and has since generated a buzz around diversity in the sport of football and among other professional leagues alike. The announcement of the NFL’s adoption of the Rooney Rule demonstrated the acknowledgement of the under-representation of African-Americans among NFL head coaches, however, the rising concern surrounded the enforcement and implementation of the rule. Notably, there continues to be subtle discriminatory practices in the NFL, resulting in a low number of minority representation. Questions I consider are: Did this rule live up to its expectations of a racial equalizer? What does this mean for the future of minority coaches in the league?
- 80/85 of the NFL’s current offensive coordinators, quarterback coaches and offensive quality control coaches are white
- 23/32 defensive coordinators are white
- The white coach is 114% more likely to become a coordinator
- 4/32 coaches in the 2013 NFL season were a minority (primarily African-American)
- 8/32 coaches in 2018 NFL season were a minority (primarily African-American)
Due to a rising concern of discriminatory practices in the NFL in respects to hiring practices, the NFL appointed a “Committee of Workplace Diversity” in 2002, headed by Steeler’s President at the time, Dan Rooney. The committee studied the hiring practices to identify the issues and establish a plan for action if they saw fit. The recommendations that came out of their study were as follows:
- Make a commitment to interview minority candidates for every head coaching job opening
- Establish a coordinator/assistant head coach databank to assist NFL teams in the consideration of qualified coaching candidates
- Allow early interview opportunities for assistant coaches of playoff teams.
Upon careful consideration, the committee settled on implementing what they called the “Rooney Rule”- it required teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head coach and general manager jobs. The catalyst to implementing this rule was the firing of head coach Tim Dungy and Dennis Green, 2 African-American head coaches despite their success over their respective tenures. As of the official introduction of the Rooney Rule in 2003, the NFL has seen a number of black coaches enter and exit the league, but the statistics still demonstrate the inequalities spanning across races. The league at the time was generally accepting of this new rule and many viewed this as progressive move in the NFL that could potentially expand across other leagues and society.
The Oakland Raiders felt the heat from fans and the league when they hired Jon Gruden as head coach, as allegations filtered in that the organization had violated the Rooney Rule. Ultimately, the NFL ruled that there were prior actions that aligned with the criteria of the Rooney Rule and cleared the Raiders from any disciplinary actions. The Raiders had apparently interviewed then-Raiders tight ends coach Bobby Johnson and Southern California offensive coordinator Tee Martin. The critics still view this as simply ‘side-stepping‘ the genuine intent of the rule, as neither individual were interviewed in good faith. The Pollard Alliance stated that they believed these interviews were never for the first place job but rather the intent was that the Raiders were interviewing the men for ‘second place’ to fabricate compliancy for league rules. In their statement, Pollard Alliance state that the Rooney Rule was ‘meant to give candidates of colour an opportunity to compete for the first offer,” which they felt was not considered.
The existence of the Rooney Rule brings to the attention as to whether teams are hiring for the reasons that pertain to the sport rather than colour of a person’s skin. Perhaps the rule continues to perpetuate the stigmatism of minorities who fail to meet the selection criteria that supersedes the rule itself. Nonetheless, it is apparent in the recent statistics and blatant disregard of the rule by the Oakland Raiders that the Rooney Rule has failed to uphold its long-term impact it set out to do. It is not the NFL alone, of the 128 NCAA Dl-FBS football programs that took the field in 2015, “11.7% of the head coaching jobs in the league were available this offseason and none were filled by a Black coaching candidate” (Bopp & Turick, 2016). For a team to be successful, the coach must have the “ability to condition the athletes’ minds and to train them to think as a unit” and therefore, the lack of diversity in the league where relationships and bonds between players and coaches is of upmost importance is astonishing.
The path to becoming an NFL head coach is clear. What remains largely unavailable to minorities is the opportunity to stand among their non-white counterparts as equals. Despite the NFL’s initiatives for diversity, the Rooney Rule and other actions address symptoms and fail to address the underlying issues deep-rooted in the sport of football. As statistics show, there has been an overall increase in minority coaches as seasons have been played. However, in a span of 28 years, the number of minority coaches that exist in the league has only increased from a total of 1 to 8 coaches. Dungy and his former assistants accounted for 43% of minority head-coaching hires over 2 decades. His retirement leaves a significant void in the NFL and for those minority candidates who saw hope towards a progressive league. Even Dungy himself witnesses the inconsistency and the misuse of the Rooney Rule, implies the underlying mockery of the rule as simply “just let me talk to a couple minority coaches very quickly so I can go about the business of hiring the person I really want to hire anyway.”
In a study conducted by Chris Rider, Georgetown McDonough School of Business; James B. Wade, George Washington University; Anand Swaminathan, Emory University; and Andreas Schwab, Iowa State University, they concluded that “white position coaches and assistants in the NFL are more than twice as likely to be promoted to coordinator than their black counterparts, regardless of their performance, experience or coaching background.” The research considered the positions the men coached throughout their career and this was the key takeaway:
“…quarterback coaches are more likely to become head coaches than, say, receivers or running backs coaches. And because white players are more likely to play quarterback (a recent study found that black high school quarterbacks are 39 percent more likely to be asked to switch positions when they enter college), they are also more likely to coach the position, and then possibly become coordinators, and so forth. They accrue privilege from the moment they step foot on a field, and it only accumulates as time passes” (ESPN, 2016)
In effect, the rule itself has served as a kind of institutional conscience for bringing racial equality to NFL hiring. In social dialogue, black people are seen as aggressive and unintelligent compared to white counterparts who are associated with ‘brawn and brain’ and strong work ethics. As seen in soccer as well, there is a constant whiteness that is promoted and represented among the athletic bodies (Hylton & Lawrence, 2015). Even to the extent of making those of ethnic backgrounds appear ‘whiter’ to appeal to the spectators of the game and ensure that the quality and athleticism is not undermined by entrance of minorities who begin to dominate the fields.
In the realm of football, the quarterbacks, offensive coordinators, and quarterback coaches are considered a ‘thinking man’ position and filled with white individuals who embody the mental intelligence of the role. When examining the NCAA Div1-FBS, black athletes comprise of a majority of positions on field, however “black head coaches are severely underrepresented at this level” (Agyemang & DeLorme, 2010). There also continues to be recruiting practices that implicitly favour the on boarding of the black athletes who bolster incredible athletic abilities than those of their white counterparts. Now if these capabilities have been acknowledged by decision-making authority, it seems inconceivable that the same colleges have historically devalued a black coaches ability to guide a team. Applying the critical race theory (CRT) to this sheds light into the practices and observed in the lack of representation among head coaches. The CRT take the position that “racism is ordinary and normal in contemporary society, indeed perhaps integral to social practices and institutions” (Harris, 2012). It goes to show that ‘white privilege’ does infiltrate aspects of society outside of corporate ladders.
The problem with this is the biological assumptions of the ‘ideal’ person. This stems from centuries of flawed practices of segregating ‘deficient’ individuals from society; whether that was through excluding the minority bodies from public places, placing them into separate leagues, and ensuring a limited mixing of races to protect the purity and excellence of the white bodies. These minority bodies were treated like caste-like systems and sent away in order to reconfigure them to appear more ‘natural’. In a study conducted by Dufur and Fienberg of the NFL draft, “minority workers experience symbolic discrimination during the hiring process” (Dufur & Fienberg, 2008).
With a recent stagnation of the development in the league’s coaching decisions, changes need to be made to ensure the long-term success of this initiative. If it is known that 94% of head coaches hired were previously in offensive coordinator roles, and the limited minority representation in the NCAA Division I league, the Rooney Rule should extend in two ways. The first would be to expand the definition to include all staffing positions and second would be to implement the rule into the NCAA as it continues to be the primary talent pipeline for NFL coaching and staff. The current definition remains limiting to solely head coaches and general managers, however we recognize that the primary consideration for these roles include the prior roles held by candidates. It would be natural step to extend the Rooney Rule towards all staffing decisions to ensure all ethnic groups have the exposure to these positions to mitigate the systemic discriminatory practices among the lower coaching ranks. In addition to their previous experience, coaching candidates are often selected from the NCAA due to their proven capabilities and relevant game knowledge. Therefore, it would be a revolutionary step to consider applying this rule league-wide and to demonstrate commitment to diversity and inclusion.
Changing the composition of the league is not by any means going to be an overnight success. In this day and age, praying for a final Hail Mary play is not going to ensure that change will be accepted and considered by all the stakeholders on and off the field. In order for the NFL to see a movement towards equality it will require consistent efforts from everyone involved. The Rooney Rule was a pivotal step in moving in a direction that eliminates the barriers to entry for minorities and creating opportunity for a diverse and inclusive league regardless of who they are.
Agyemang, K. & DeLorme, J. (2010). Examining the Dearth of Black Head Coaches at the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision Level: A Critical Race Theory and Social Dominance Theory Analysis. Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics, 35-53.
Dufur, M.J. & Feinberg, S.L. (2009) Race and the NFL Draft: View From the Auction Block. Qualitative Sociology. 32: 53. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-008-9119-8
Forsyth, J. (2013). Bodies of Meaning: Sports and games at Canadian residential schools. In J. Forsyth & A. Giles (eds.), Aboriginal Peoples and Sport in Canada: Historical foundations and contemporary issues (pp.15- 34). Vancouver, UBC Press.
Harris, A. P. (2012). Critical Race Theory. BePress.
Hylton, K. & Lawrence, S. (2015). Reading Ronaldo: Contingent whiteness in the football media. Soccer & Society, 16(5-6), 765-782.
NFL. (2002, December 20). NFL Clubs to Implement Comprehensive Programs to Promote Diversity in Hiring. Retrieved from https://www.nfl.info/nflmedia/News/2002News/NFLDiversityProgram.htm
Roach, M. (2015). Does Prior NFL Head Coaching Experience Improve Team Performance? Journal of Sport Management, 30(3), 298-311.
Turick, R., & Bopp, T. (2016). A Current Analysis of Black Head Football Coaches and Offensive Coordinators at the NCAA DI-FBS Level. Journal of Intercollegiate Sport, 9(2), 282-303.