10 Years Later: The NFL and The Rooney Rule

By: Michael Bernstein

As much as some would like to believe otherwise, race is still very much an issue in the United States.  Despite the continuing social advances our society makes, some of the most prominent corporations in our country still face problems finding ways to incorporate more diversity into their ranks.  One of those corporations is the National Football League.  Despite African-Americans making up roughly 67 percent of the players in the league,[1] the demographic only accounts for about 19 percent of the head coaches,[2] 19 percent of the general managers,[3] and there has never been an African-American president or CEO of an NFL team.[4]  The NFL has made strides to combat this problem, the Rooney Rule, implemented in 2003 to combat racial bias in the hiring process for head coaches and other management positions, requires that teams interview at least one minority candidate for those position.[5]  There is no requirement or obligation to hire anyone, but there must at the very least be an interview.

The NFL would say that the rule has been extremely effective, citing the statistic that the number of African-American coaches tripled from two to six by 2005.[6]  But that total peaked at eight in 2011, and was back down to five by 2012.[7]  And while the rule has certainly led to several minority hirings, it could be argued that most of those candidates would have earned those positions anyway without the rule.  Many believe the rule has lost its effectiveness, noting that after the 2012 season there were eight head coaching changes and seven changes at general manager, and zero of those fifteen positions were filled by minorities.[8]

The obvious first step in making the Rooney Rule more effective is to expand the positions that are governed by it, specifically the offensive and defensive coordinator positions, which are a primary hunting ground for head coaching candidates.[9]  It is very common in the NFL, like many other corporations, for employees to start at the bottom and work their way up, so getting more minorities hired in lower level positions would inevitably lead to more minorities at the top.

Another less obvious fix is to require teams with minority interim head coaches to interview another minority candidate besides the interim head coach.  It has become a trend to fire the head coach near the end of the season, promote a minority coach on the team to interim head coach, and then interview the interim head coach to fulfill the Rooney Rule requirements before eventually hiring another candidate and going in a different direction.[10]  Requiring teams to interview another minority candidate prevents teams from using this procedure as a runaround to the rule by ensuring that they still make the effort to seek out quality minority job candidates.

The NFL has shown that they are willing to make the extra effort to get minorities into high level positions in the league, but ultimately the league cannot push any team’s hand in the decision making process.  However, what they can, and hopefully will continue to do is implement and adapt their rules to prevent the progress they have undertaken from turning stagnant and grinding to a halt.

[1] Richard Lapchick et al, The 2012 Racial and Gender Report Card: National Football League 4 (Sept. 13, 2012), http://www.tidesport.org/RGRC/2012/2012_NFL_RGRC.pdf.

[2] Id. at 6.

[3] Id. at 8.

[4] Id. at 8.

[5] Ex-coaches: Rooney Rule is Broken, ESPN.com (Jan. 31, 2013, 9:30 PM), http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/8903044/black-former-nfl-coaches-say-rooney-rule-broken.

[6] Richard Lapchick et al, The 2012 Racial and Gender Report Card: National Football League 7 (Sept. 13, 2012), http://www.tidesport.org/RGRC/2012/2012_NFL_RGRC.pdf.

[7] Id. at 6.

[8] Monte Burke, Why The NFL’s Rooney Rule Matters, Forbes.com (Jan. 26, 2013, 9:46 AM), http://www.forbes.com/sites/monteburke/2013/01/26/why-the-nfls-rooney-rule-matters/.

[9] Id.

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