Jan 16, 2020 - Sports

The failure of the NFL's Rooney Rule

Kendall Baker, author of Sports
Data: Pro Football Reference; Photos: Getty; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

In 2003, the NFL instituted the Rooney Rule in an effort to diversify its sidelines. Technically, the rule has done what it promised — requiring teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head-coaching jobs — but it's hard to find positive signs of its impact today.

By the numbers: 70.1% of NFL players are non-white, but only 12.5% of regular-season games in 2019 were coached by people of color. With the same four coaches in place for 2020 (Brian Flores, Ron Rivera, Anthony Lynn, Mike Tomlin), a similar number will be expected.

  • Only once in NFL history has a team replaced a black head coach with another black man — in 2009, when the Colts' Tony Dungy retired and Jim Caldwell succeeded him.
  • In addition to the lack of minority coaches, just two teams employ minority general managers, the senior position in NFL front offices.

Between the lines: While the Rooney Rule helps minorities get head coach interviews, it does nothing to help them land the jobs that might actually get them hired as head coaches down the road.

  • Since 2009, nearly 40% of head coaches hired in the NFL were offensive coordinators prior to their appointment, the most of any feeder position.
  • During that same span, 91% of those hired as offensive coordinators were white, according to a recent study by the Global Sport and Education Lab at Arizona State University.

What they're saying: To address this pipeline problem, Giants co-owner John Mara recently suggested expanding the Rooney Rule to include offensive coordinators:

"We talked in December on the Workplace Diversity Committee about feeding the pipeline further. I can tell you: This is a real concern of the Commissioner and the league."

The big picture: The NFL is not alone in its struggles to diversify the upper echelons of power. In corporate America, there are just four black chief executives at Fortune 500 companies, per the New York Times.

  • The root of the problem appears to be unconscious bias: People make decisions to hire people that they can relate to and feel comfortable around.
  • In the NFL, 32 of 34 owners are white, and when Panthers owner David Tepper hired Matt Rhule earlier this month, one of the first things he said was that he reminded him of himself and dressed similarly.

The bottom line, courtesy of WashPost's Sally Jenkins:

  • "The lack of minority coaches in the NFL isn't just the fault of white team owners. That's too easy. Less easy to speak aloud is the deep racial bias among a generation of head coaches who have made a habit of promoting younger white replicants of themselves."
  • "The colleagues who have helped to perpetuate these tendencies have three basic options. They can look away uncomfortably and pretend it isn't so. They can comfortably acquiesce and go back to watching tape. Or they can ask why their coaching trees always seem to carry so many snow-white ornaments and decide to make a difference."

Go deeper: NFL coaching carousel: Only the Browns remain without a hire

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