Updated Feb 6, 2022 - Sports

How the NFL's Rooney Rule failed minority coaches

Data: Pro Football Reference; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

The NFL's Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching jobs, was embraced far outside the league after being instituted in 2003.

Why it matters: The rule is frequently criticized as a sham, and a lawsuit filed against the NFL on Tuesday by former Dolphins head coach Brian Flores says the same — with explosive details to bolster the claim.

Details: Flores, who is Black, was interviewed for the Giants' head coaching job after the team decided to hire a white candidate (also named Brian), the suit alleges, citing texts from Bill Belichick.

  • When Flores showed up to interview for the Broncos job in 2019, he claims John Elway, the team's general manager, was hungover and didn't seem serious about the process.
  • The NFL, Dolphins and Broncos denied Flores' claims, and the Giants say Flores was in the running for the job "until the eleventh hour."

What he's saying: "I think we are at a fork in the road," said Flores, the son of Honduran immigrants. "We are either going to keep it the way it is or ... [change] the hearts and minds of those who make [hiring] decisions."

Representation at team level, people of color
Data: TIDES; Table: Axios Visuals

By the numbers: Roughly three out of four NFL players are non-white, but just three active head coaches are people of color: Mike Tomlin, Ron Rivera and Robert Saleh.

  • Only once in NFL history has a team replaced a Black head coach with another Black man: Jim Caldwell succeeded Tony Dungy in Indianapolis when he retired in 2009.
  • The NFL has zero Black owners and just two owners of color, one of whom is a co-owner with her husband.

The big picture: The Rooney Rule was adopted by big, well-known companies like Facebook and Amazon. But there's no quick fix when it comes to diversity, and many have since embraced new practices that set more specific goals.

  • "The Rooney Rule obviously didn't work, though people still use it as a rule of thumb," said Stefanie Johnson, a business professor whose 2016 research revealed that on its own the rule didn't translate into hiring women or men of color.
  • The upper echelons of corporate America, like the NFL, also look remarkably white and male; there have been only 19 Black CEOs in the 67-year history of the Fortune 500.

Between the lines: In addition to changing how coaches are hired, Flores' lawsuit could also change how teams are bought and sold — and may even put a new one in play, Axios' Dan Primack notes.

  • The lawsuit proposes ensuring diversity of ownership by "creating and funding a committee dedicated to sourcing Black investors to take majority ownership stakes in NFL teams."
  • Flores' suit could be the catalyst that forces the league to relax its ownership rules, which contain more barriers to entry than any other major sports league.

What to watch: The Broncos are officially up for sale, and the Dolphins could be next if owner Stephen Ross is proven to have offered Flores extra cash to throw games, as the lawsuit alleges. Ross denies this.

Editor's note: This story originally published on Feb. 3.

Go deeper