A British Fans Guide To: The Rooney Rule

With the English Premier League considering adopting a similar rule to the NFL’s “Rooney Rule”, we take a look at what it is, how it works and what it has meant for the NFL as a whole.

What is the Rooney Rule?

Put simply, the Rooney Rule is a requirement that for every head coaching and other senior football operations (eg, General Manager) position, at least one black, or other minority, candidate is interviewed. It is a form of affirmative action—sometimes called “positive discrimination”—aimed to tackle a perceived underrepresentation of a certain group in a specific role.

Unlike some other “affirmative action” schemes, it includes no quotas or hiring requirements. It applies only to the top roles in the organisation, in both the front office and coaching staff.

Why does the Rooney Rule Exist?

The Rooney Rule was created to tackle a significant imbalance in the NFL. Approximately 12.5 % of the US Population are of an ethnic minority, and approximately 60% of the NFL are from ethnic minorities (black, hispanic and Polynesian primarily, with blacks by far the largest percentage), yet in 2003, when the rule came into effect, only 6% of all head coaches were African-American (or of any other minority).

Until 1979, the NFL had only one black head coach in it’s history—Fritz Pollard, the co-head coach of the Akron Pros in 1921 and Hammond Pros in 1925—and until the early 2000’s had added only 6 more minority head coaches to their ranks.

This was, obviously, a significant problem, as the NFL had no problems employing black and hispanic people as players, position coaches, scouts and even coordinators, but seemed to have a proverbial glass ceiling which prevented them from reaching the top rungs of the ladder—namely head coach and general manager.

The rule was seen as a way of forcing teams to consider options outside of the “old boys network” of head coaches (known fondly as the “Coaching Tree” in the NFL), and as a way of removing any real, or perceived stigma attached to hiring a minority for the top roles.

Why is it called the Rooney Rule?

It is named the Rooney Rule after Dan Rooney, the son of long-time Steelers owner Art Rooney, and chair of the diversity committee in 2003 when the rule came into place. It is also named after the Rooney family generally, who were known to offer minority candidates a chance long before the rule was implemented.

Some have questioned if this is the best name for the rule, questioning how much of the rule he actually spearheaded, and arguing that Rooney was appointed with a mandate to push such a rule through. Some have also suggested that Arthur Blank (Owner of the Atlanta Falcons) and Ray Anderson (then Vice President of Football Operations for the Falcons) likely had more to do with shaping the rule than Rooney. Anderson was a former agent who represented multiple black head coaches, and Blank’s Home Depot had implemented similar hiring policies long before the NFL.

Others have suggested long time Oakland Raiders head coach, GM and ultimately Owner Al Davis deserves more credit for hiring minority coaches than the Rooney Family, hiring both Tom Flores and Art Shell as head coaches long before there was any talk of such a rule.

Nonetheless, the name the Rooney Rule stuck, and is unlikely to change.

Has the Rooney Rule Worked?

Most agree that the rule has been moderately successful. In 2003, there were 2 active black head coaches in the NFL, by 2006 there were 7 minority head coaches in the NFL, or 22%.

By 2004, a year after the rule was imposed, one team, the Arizona Cardinals had a black head coach (Dennis Green) and general manager (Rod Graves), which was highlighted as a major milestone for the league. Graves was once called one of the 100 most influential minorities in sports by Sports illustrated, and one of the 50 most powerful black people in sports by Black Enterprise.

Indeed, over the next decade, the NFL added 13 more minority head coaches to its ranks, nearly double the amount it had seen in the 70 years prior.

Although this appears to have plateaued since the high of 2006—today the number of minority head coaches hovers at, or around the national average of about 12.5%—this is still well up from the 6% still seen in college football, which was also the number in the NFL prior to the implementation of the rule. That said, it is still significantly less than the 60% percent average of minority players in the NFL, which remains a concern for the league.

Either way, this is a real step in the right direction for the NFL.

There are also seven black general managers, a huge improvement over recent decades. This represents 25% of all designated GMs in the league—only 28 teams have General Manager as a specific, separate role, the others are either owners, other senior executives, or head coaches pulling double duty, or else teams with no defined GM at all.

What are the criticisms of the Rooney Rule?

While most agree that the Rooney Rule has had some effect, many also question if it is enough. Some have suggested that the rule has too many loopholes which can be avoided. For example, any team who have a position coach or coordinator whose contract contains language implying they will receive a shot at a head coaching position in the future are not subject to the rule, and can employ this coach without needing to interview other candidates.

Similarly, some have suggested that, as there are no quotas for the league, there is nothing to stop teams from interviewing minority candidates simply to “fulfill the rule” without ever actually considering them for a position. For example, from 2008-2013 there were 18 head coaching vacancies in the NFL. All 18 teams interviewed minority candidates, some of them interviewing multiple black and hispanic candidates, and yet only a single one—Ron Rivera, who is of Mexican and Puerto Rican decent—was actually hired. Things improved marginally in 2014, when both Jim Caldwell and Lovie Smith were hired, though even this didn’t particularly improve the overall stats.

Indeed, there has been some indication that the rule has actually held back a number of minority candidates who might otherwise have a head coaching job already. For example, following the Arizona Cardinals firing of Ken Whisenhunt following the 2012 season, defensive coordinator Ray Horton was widely considered the favourite to replace him. Horton’s defence had been one of the sole bright spots during their disappointing 2012 campaign, and fans and pundits alike felt he had earned the chance to run the team. He had reportedly lined up Norv Turner as his offensive coordinator, and had multiple interviews with the Cardinals, as well as the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills.

In the end, the Cardinals went a different direction, bringing in 2012 Coach of the Year Bruce Arians to run their team. And in the end, while most agree Arians was too good for the team to pass up, the snub by the Cardinals—Horton’s current team—is considered by some to be a key reason for his being passed over by the Browns and Bills. After all, if his current team don’t believe in him, why should they?

Many teams make their first order of business following the firing of their current head coach to interview a minority coach from their current staff, simply to meet the rule, then go about their interviews as normal. Many of those coaches feel that they are not given real consideration the top job, and that being passed over for promotion by their current team may have hurt their chances of getting a shot elsewhere.

There may be some truth to this, looking at both black head coaches hired in 2014—Lovie Smith and Jim Caldwell—neither was a case of a new, young black coach making his way up the ladder, but instead a former head coach making his way back to the top. Indeed, in Smith’s case, he didn’t even need to take a step back and work his way back up, he simply spent a year away from football, and returned to the same position he vacated—albeit with a different team.

Additionally, some have suggested that, with or without the rule, the tides were already turning in the NFL, pointing out that 6 of the 7 minority head coaches appointed before the rule were active during the decade prior to the Rooney Rule coming into force. For example, they have pointed out that the majority of coaches in the NFL are former players, and the majority of head coaches spend many years working their way up the coaching ladder. In the 1970’s—when most current head coaches were playing—only around 30% of the NFL were ethnic minorities. The argument is simple—you can’t expect to get up to 50 or 60% of head coaches from minorities—the percentage of players today—as there simply isn’t a sufficient pool of qualified candidates to draw from, as a much smaller percentage of the league were minorities when most head coaching candidates played.

Since you do not simply walk into a head coaching job, most players spend several years working their way up the coaching tree in high-school and college before even getting a junior assistant position in the NFL, it would only make sense that as the number of former minority players increases, so would the number of coaches. If this doesn’t happen in places like the college game and CFL however, then it is safe to assume this particular argument is unfounded.

What are the punishments for failing to follow the rule?

The NFL has the right to issue fines or other sanctions to any team found to be in breach of the rule. In 2003, for example, the first year the rule came into effect, the Detroit Lions fired their head coach, appointing veteran coach Steve Mariucci to the position shortly thereafter. They were handed a $200,000 fine for their breach of the rule, though the Lions contended that they had attempted to interview multiple minority coaches, but all withdrew from the process when they discovered the team had already interviewed Mariucci, feeling the decision was inevitable.

The league did not budge, though this does somewhat highlight the arbitrary and “box ticking” nature of the interview process.

Is the NFL considering making the Rooney Rule more strict?

Following the 2012/2013 hirings, when 8 white coaches were hired in a single season, the NFL spoke at length about their intentions to tighten up the rule, however, at this point, no firm consensus on what this may look like has been proposed.

Some have suggested firm quotas which must be met, though this could be difficult given that it could put hiring and firing decisions in the hands of other teams, or the league, not the owners. After all, no one would want to be the first team to fire a head coach, if doing so would force them to hire a black coach to keep up quotas, nor would they want to be the last team left without a coach, for the same reason.

Others have suggested forcing teams to interview at least one minority coach from outside of their own organisation would prevent teams from simply “ticking the box”. However this runs the risk of more situations like the 2003 Lions where candidates withdraw from interviews if they feel like they don’t stand a real chance. Additionally, it may limit the chances of promotions from within if teams are forced to look outside of the organisation. Multiple minority head coaches have got their jobs in this way, such as, Romeo Crennel and Raheem Morris, who both got head coaching jobs from internal promotions. Limiting this is seen by some as a step backwards.

Finally, there is the prospect of widening the net to include offensive and defensive coordinators, as well as head coaches. However some have suggested that this too easy to bypass, and would result in teams simply re-naming these roles, and also leaves a lot of vagueness.

For example, offensive and defensive coordinators may have very different roles in different teams—it is hard to compare the role of the Harold Goodwin who is the offensive coordinator on a team like the Cardinals—where head coach Bruce Arians calls the plays offensively, with a lot of help from Assistant Head Coach Tom Moore—with that of Kyle Shanahan—who single handedly runs the Brown’s entire offense. It also leaves many questions about where, for example, assistant head coaches, offensive and defensive assistants, special teams coordinators and other key roles fall into the hierarchy, and whether these roles also need to be opened up to minorities.

Clearly none of these options are perfect, but all of them have potential to boost the prospects for minority coaches if implemented correctly.

Could this work in the UK?

With the NFL looking to establish at least one permanent franchise in the UK in the next few years, and with many inside the FA looking to implement this sort of a rule for the English football leagues, it is worth asking the question as to whether it can work  at all here in the UK

Put simply, we’re not sure.

Until recently, UK discrimination laws were some of the strictest anywhere, and strictly forbade any kind of discrimination at all, including positive discrimination and affirmative action. In 2010, the UK Equality Act was updated, and, from 2011, employers have been allowed to take “positive action” to help under-represented groups, with “protected characteristics”. This includes age, religion, gender and sexuality, as well as race. In general, the law is worded in such a way that while it remains illegal to unfairly disadvantage any group—including the “majority”—a protected characteristic can be used as a deciding factor between equally capable candidates.

In a nutshell, it would be illegal in the UK to hire someone simply because they are black, and the employer feels they need more black employees, or to advertise a job as being open to women only, because they have quotas to fill.  But it would be possible to select a black candidate over a white one if the two were equally qualified. Similarly, it empowers employers to make positive steps towards redressing any imbalance, and ensuring underrepresented groups have equal chances to advance—this includes things like training which is only open to certain protected groups, like women, where they have identified that women are under qualified and underrepresented at the top levels in their organisation.

However, the law is specific that quotas, artificially low thresholds or anything which disadvantages a more qualified candidate, even if that candidate is part of the “majority” and other similar action is still illegal. This applies primarily to employment, but also has obvious ties to recruitment too.

The Rooney Rule is a grey area. On the one hand, it is not a quota per-se, it doesn’t insist that a certain number of minority employees are hired, but by insisting that at least one person is interviewed, simply for being of a minority, aside from qualifications, could still potentially falls foul of the law. For example, if four former head coaches, all with winning records in similar systems were available and interested, but also white, and a defensive backs coach from a small college, who run a different system (3-4, when you run a 4-3 for example) was the only black coach who was also available and interested, it would be hard to justify interviewing him at all, under UK law in spite of the Rooney Rule, and would certainly be illegal to pass up on one of the white candidates simply to tick a box.

An NFL team playing in the UK may get around this by having their registered offices based in the USA, and having all coaching staff legally registered as employees of the American owned company—virtually all of the staff, both coaching and front office, would almost certainly be US citizens anyway until the game is more established over here.

However, while this would possibly work for the NFL, the same cannot easily be said for the football association.

The fact that the discussion is even taking place likely means the FA has done their homework, and drafted a version of the policy which is compatible with british equality law, but one thing remains to be seen… is it even necessary?

Is the Rooney Rule necessary in the FA?

The Rooney Rule is aimed to address systematic discrimination in the NFL. At the time sport had nearly 60% of its player population considered ethnic minorities, while at its top-level, had ten times fewer head coaches from ethnic minority backgrounds (6%).

In the FA, many are shocked to discover that there are just two black managers across 92 teams in the top four flights of English football. Considering that around 25% of players in the premier league are black, this is indeed an issue.

However, unlike the NFL where nearly 100% of the playing and coaching staff are US (or at least North American) citizens, things simply aren’t so simple in the FA.

In the Premier League, for example only around one-third of the players are currently English, as defined by FIFA’s rules for international eligibility. While black managers are indeed underrepresented, some have questioned whether “black” and “white” are the best ways to define ethnicities in a multi-national league like the Premier League.

For example, eight of the 20 current Premier League managers were born outside of the British Isles, and only eight are English—the rest being Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish.

Nearly one-third of all managers across the Football League were born outside of England, and nearly one-quarter would meet the definition of “Ethnic Minority” in the Rooney Rule.

In addition, in a multi-lingual, multi-national league like the English Premier League, it is hard to argue that those who are born and educated outside of the UK do not have an advantage over those born here.

Most speak—at least—English to a high level, in addition to their native language, due to the emphasis placed on learning English in schools outside of the UK. On the flip side, most native English speakers no little more than the very basics of a foreign language. Many of those educated in continental Europe will speak at least three or more languages, due to increasing homogenization on the continent. Speaking multiple languages when you manage a team where, perhaps only 30% of your players will have been born in England is a huge benefit.

Furthermore, with international competition, such as the champions league such a key part of the game for top teams, an international manager will also come with insight and understanding how to best succeed in this arena.

And finally, like the NFL, the English leagues managerial ranks are increasingly made up by former players.

As with the NFL it is unreasonable to assume that players will just walk into the top job upon retirement from playing, and like the NFL, during the period when most current managers were playing—the 1970’s to 1990’s—a much smaller minority of players were black, or of other minorities. For example, Chelsea and Newcastle both didn’t have any black players at all until 1982.

Like the NFL, FA clubs simply have a much smaller pool of available minority coaches and managers to choose from. Like in the NFL, as more minority players reach retirement age from playing, and begin to make their way up the coaching tree, we should see more black and minority managers. But until we have a larger pool to choose from, until we have more minority players who’ve had the time to work their way up to the top after retirement, it’s hard to say there is a problem just yet.

If in 5-10 years we still have black managers so significantly underrepresented, then perhaps discussions of a Rooney Rule might be in order. Until then, however, we remain unconvinced.


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