The Rooney Rule

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From the NFL’s inception in 1966 until 2002, the league only had six minority head coaches.

Now, granted, there was less diversity in the league in its early days, but the lack of coaching diversity in the late 20th century is shocking, especially since the percentage of black players had surpassed that of white players before the 1990s.

The NFL owners diversity committee, led by Art Rooney (the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers), decided that there needed to be a system in place to combat this.

They obviously couldn’t require that a certain number of teams hire minority candidates—which would mirror most affirmative-action type plans—since teams are independently owned and operated.

Instead, they decided that requiring teams to interview a minority candidate would likely be a step in the right direction towards diversity. Thus, the “Rooney Rule” was born.

Since 2003, the NFL has had 14 minority head coaches (plus four interim minority head coaches). The Rooney Rule seems to be working to at least some extent. Personally, I think that it has done a great job.

However, some people argue that this policy is unnecessary. The arguments I’ve heard on this position tend to center around the fact that if teams have a candidate in mind, interviewing other candidates is pointless.

This opinion stems from cases like the Raiders’ hiring of Jon Gruden this offseason. Before teams were even technically allowed to be talking to coaches for the upcoming season, reports came out that the Raiders had decided on Gruden. Obviously, it didn’t matter if the Raiders interviewed other candidates. Their mind was already made up.

However, there has been at least one case of these interviews mattering. In 2015, the Broncos had a similar situation when they wanted Gary Kubiak to be their next head coach. They interviewed Vance Joseph, a defensive backs coach in Cincinnati, simply as a formality.

Two years later, when the head coaching position became available again, the Broncos hired Joseph. Clearly he showed them something in that prior interview that impressed them, and without the rule, he may have never gotten the chance.

Still others argue that the rule doesn’t do enough. After all, about 70% of the players in the NFL are of minority ethnicities, yet less than 30% of coaches are of minority ethnicities. 

And while I see where this opinion comes from, I don’t think that this discrepancy is the NFL’s fault. In fact, I would argue that since there is no physical requirement to be a coach, the diversity level of coaches should roughly model that of the US population, which it actually does to very high degree.

My point in all of this is that in light of all of the race issues we see in America today, and in light of certain race issues we’ve seen in sports lately, it’s important to remember that there are institutions and people that are working towards fair practices and fair outcomes.

We can always get better at being fair, as humans, and I think the Rooney Rule is a fantastic step, if even a small one, toward that end. 

Tyler Dean is a junior studying mathematics.