The NFL’s Rooney Rule Was Meant to Bring Diversity. It’s Not.
The NFL logo is seen after being painted on the field at Dolphin Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photographer: Richard Sheinwald/Bloomberg News)

The NFL’s Rooney Rule Was Meant to Bring Diversity. It’s Not.

(Bloomberg) -- The National Football League got props for its “Rooney rule” in 2003, when it began to require teams to interview at least one nonwhite candidate for each open head coaching position. The idea even caught on in the business world. But almost two decades later, the NFL’s crop of coaches is getting whiter.

The number of nonwhite coaches in the league has fallen to four, from eight as recently as the 2018 season.

This season could have brought progress, because five NFL teams were hiring head coaches. Instead, in recent weeks, the New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys and Carolina Panthers all hired white coaches. The Washington Redskins hired Ron Rivera, who is Hispanic; he had been with the Panthers. Only the Cleveland Browns now have an open spot, and oddsmakers are predicting the new coach there will also be white.

“The fact that in 100 years of football we go from Fritz Pollard being the first African American coach in 1919 to four today, that's not a record that we can be proud of,” said Rod Graves, executive director of a foundation that advocates for diversity in football and helped to develop the rule. He worked in the NFL front office and had scouting and administrative roles at the Chicago Bears, Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets. “I think that we've got to step back,” Graves said, “and focus on an even wider picture.”So much for the Rooney rule.

The NFL’s Rooney Rule Was Meant to Bring Diversity. It’s Not.

The NFL and representatives from the four teams that have hired coaches this year did not return requests for comment. A spokesman for the Browns, Peter John-Baptiste, said the team follows the rule and has not completed interviews. He said the policy “not only provides more opportunities for diverse candidates to interview, it also helps organizations slow down their search to ensure a thorough and disciplined process.”

Many big companies like Amazon and Facebook have adopted their own versions of the Rooney rule in efforts to diversify. But it’s not clear that interviewing more nonwhite candidates leads to hiring more nonwhite workers. The tech industry remains white at its highest levels. Gains for women and minorities remain tepid at the top of the business world as a whole. Black CEOs have fallen to about 1% of the chiefs in the S&P 500. Black directors made up only about 1% of board members in the S&P 500, and 37% of boards did not have a single black member, according to an analysis by Black Enterprise magazine.

In the NFL, the net loss of four minority coaches at the end of the 2018 season — among eight coaches fired — seemed at first to be an anomaly, said Richard Lapchick, director of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida, who has been tabulating the racial breakdown of the NFL since the 1980s. But with no improvement this year in diversity, despite five vacancies, the trend is troubling, he said.

“I can’t have an optimistic spin on the fact that for two straight years we only have four head coaches,” said Lapchick, who is also the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. “Hopefully we’ll see better than that in the future, but this year doesn’t show us that.”

The NFL’s Rooney Rule Was Meant to Bring Diversity. It’s Not.

Other than on the field, where 70% of players are ethnic minorities, much of the rest of the league is moving backward. Every year, Lapchick's organization gives the major U.S. sports leagues a grade on their gender and racial representation in hiring. In 2019, the NFL received a B-, its lowest mark since 2004. There are two general managers of color, down from six in 2017. The percentage of nonwhite assistant coaches fell to 33.6% from 35.5% in the previous season, the analysis found. People of color and women did make gains among senior administration at the NFL teams, and ethnic minority game officials hit a record 39 people out of 122.

Critics of the Rooney rule — named for a former chairman of the league's diversity committee — say that while it may lead to more interviews for minority coaches, teams often treat those candidates less seriously because the interviews are required. Also, teams often have a specific coach in mind when they start their process, which can lead to sham interviews just to satisfy the rule. For example, in 2018 when the Oakland Raiders hired Jon Gruden, who is white, many believed their one-week hiring process was a circumvention of the rule. One of the nonwhite candidates was the Raiders’ own tight ends coach.

Last year, in the wake of Oakland’s search, the NFL tightened the Rooney rule, now requiring that teams interview ethnic minority candidates from outside their organization, Lapchick said. One option to further improve the process would be to expand the Rooney rule to cover hiring for offensive and defensive coordinator positions; those often lead to a head coaching position.

The top source of head coaches in the NFL is from the offensive coordinator position, with about 40% of head coaches ascending from that job, according to a Dec. 30 report from the Global Sport Education and Research Lab at Arizona State University that looked at trends from the 2009 season through the end of the 2018 season. During that time, 91% of offensive coordinators hired were white, the study found.

The NFL’s Rooney Rule Was Meant to Bring Diversity. It’s Not.

The struggle doesn’t end with being hired. Nonwhite coaches tend to be hired for less successful teams than white coaches are. That leads to less job security and shorter stints, according to a 2019 data dive by the Undefeated. Minority coaches who are fired from a head coaching job are half as likely as white peers to be hired for another NFL head coaching position, according to the Arizona State study. Fired white head coaches also went on to offensive coordinator positions in the NFL at nearly three times the rate of coaches of color, according to the 10-year study.

In some ways, the rule has become a distraction from the source of the problem. NFL owners portray the policy as their attempt to improve the diversity of the league. But they created the racial imbalance themselves, and they could solve it simply by hiring nonwhite coaches.

“I think there are enough candidates who are eminently qualified to be head coaches that are out there who are coaches of color,” Lapchick said. “Whether or not the teams are legitimately considering them, and fulfilling the Rooney rule requirements, is something only the team can really tell.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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