Revising the Rooney Rule

As with most teenagers, the NFL’s Rooney Rule remains a work in progress. 17 years have passed since the league formalized its landmark diversity initiative and, for most observers, the results have been subpar. Minority athletes comprise over 70% of team rosters; only 4 of 32 teams (12.5%) have a minority head coach. This is unfortunately typical of top-down, structural diversity initiatives: they tend to cynically become box-checking exercises that don’t address entrenched biases and established pathways to the top positions. For example, there remains an assumption that head coaches flow up from the ranks of offensive assistants, positions that remain overwhelmingly white.

But what is a league to do, given the pressure to allow its teams to conduct their business operations freely? Last week, the truly atrocious idea of linking draft position to minority opportunities was kicked around…thankfully that seems to have been shelved. Now the league is focused on increasing the breadth of the original Rooney mandate, extending minority interviewing requirements beyond the head coaching slot. This is a good thing. Here’s a summary of what has been proposed, courtesy of Front Office Sports.

  • Teams will be required to interview two minority candidates outside their organization for vacant head coach jobs and one for offensive, defensive and special teams coordinator positions.
  • Teams will be prohibited from denying interviews with other teams.
  • Must include at least one external minority applicant for senior football operations and general manager openings.
  • Position pool expanded to include minority and female applicants for executive roles including president and senior executives.
  • All 32 teams are to establish minority coaching fellowship programs.

These are all wise steps in the right direction, especially as research demonstrates that increasing the number of minority candidates in hiring pools leads to more minority hiring. Spreading the focus down the organizational chart will help disrupt some of the pathways that have stifled Rooney 1.0; acknowledging that diversity in leadership off the field is essential is also a big step. Teams should ultimately have the final say in their hiring–mandating equality of outcomes would be a mistake–but these changes are welcome progress in addressing the equality of opportunity.

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