How the Rooney Rule Can Advance Equal Opportunity
Author: Cyrus Mehri
As football fans gear up to watch the Rams and the Bengals clash in the Super Bowl this weekend, there’s another showdown happening off the field: the debate on how to best combat racial discrimination in the NFL.
It’s a debate that has implications that extend beyond the football field and into board rooms across corporate America. Football, like many other industries, faces a glaring problem: despite diversity and inclusion efforts, many companies have failed to adequately increase racial diversity in their senior ranks.
The NFL’s hiring practices have come under intense scrutiny after a racial discrimnation lawsuit by Coach Brian Flores. Specifically, some advocates have called on the NFL to abolish the Rooney Rule, a rule that requires NFL teams to conduct in-person interviews with a diverse slate of candidates when hiring head coaches and general managers.
Versions of the Rooney Rule have been adopted across many industries, so this discourse has significant implications and represents an ongoing debate: how do companies best establish equitable and inclusive practices that will increase diversity?
As one of the creators of the Rooney Rule, I’m intimately familiar with this debate. I, along with late Johnnie L. Cochran Jr, advocated for the creation of the Rooney Rule starting in 2002 in response to the dearth of Black coaches in the NFL. And the Rooney Rule has had success.
Before the Rooney Rule, there were only a handful of Black head coaches in the NFL’s 80 year history. In the 19 years since the creation of the Rooney Rule, a person of color has been selected as an NFL head coach 27 times, including twice this month. That’s infinitely better than it was before, but it’s also significantly below where it should be.
Clearly, the NFL still has a lot of progress to make. But abolishing the Rooney Rule would be a huge backslide. The Rooney Rule has taken the NFL from an abysmal situation to a better one, and it has the potential to truly transform the NFL — and other industries — if utilized in the right way.
In my work across companies and across industries as a civil rights litigator, consultant and a reformer, I have learned a number of lessons on how the NFL, and other industries, can do the Rooney Rule the right way:
Accountability Matters: First and foremost, accountability is key. This is the NFL’s current biggest area for improvement. In the early years of the Rooney Rule, the NFL strongly enforced the rule, but recently, it has turned a blind eye to blatant violations. No policy can be successful without enforcement.
Diverse Slates of Finalists, Not Diverse Pools of Applicants: Saying you have a “Rooney Rule” isn’t enough. Several major companies such as Facebook have established weak or symbolic versions of the Rooney Rule, like having a diverse pool of applicants while saying nothing about the finalists. The Rooney Rule requires interviewing a diverse slate of candidates for the final round. Don’t be fooled by what some companies say — if it’s not a finalist interview slate, it’s not likely to move the needle.
Address Bias in the Pipeline: There’s a bias in the pattern of NFL teams excluding coaches of color from the QB position coach and offensive coordinator, which results in those coaches also being excluded from the head coach pipeline. Programs dedicated to developing a diverse talent pipeline, such as the Arizona Cardinals QB Coach fellowship, and strong recruitment programs can help avoid a situation where companies claim there aren’t any outstanding candidates of color.
Use Multiple Candidates from Underrepresented Groups: A study in the Harvard Business Review showed that when there are two or more candidates of color, a candidate of color is over 190 times more likely to be hired. The Rooney Rule has been updated to include multiple underrepresented candidates in the final interview pool, and with that modification, there are signs of success with women and people of color gaining ground as team presidents and other key positions. Any company using a Rooney Rule type policy should do the same.
Start with Leadership, Then Expand: Companies should be strategic about which jobs should have a diverse interview slate requirement – starting with the key leadership positions where they are less likely to have diversity now and where the impact of each hire is greatest. At first, the NFL kept it just to Head Coach, then added General Manager. Now it extends throughout the League office and the Club levels to all senior leaders and now coordinators and it is reaping the benefits in many key areas. Changing how a company selects its leaders — and who they select – creates critical buy-in at the top and establishes this as part of organizational values.
Use Diverse Interview Panels: Many companies use diverse interview panels as part of the decision making process with great success. The NFL has not done so and should.
Use Better Selection Criteria: Diversity is stymied unless decision-makers expand their talent pool by expanding the criteria used for a key position. There are a lot of skill sets and experiences that can lead to success, even if they’re not the ones traditionally used to fill a position. Continuing to select the talents a company already has actually reduces the overall quality of its hires, especially if the criteria have not been reconsidered recently. Use an open mind and open up the process.
Use Common Sense Guidelines: The first year of the Rooney Rule, Jerry Jones interviewed a white candidate for two days in person and a Black candidate by phone for just half an hour. We called on the League to develop common sense guidelines and they did. There is still room for improvement to ensure that interviews are being held as genuine interviews, not just to tick boxes.
Whether in the NFL, or in companies large or small, we can achieve a level playing field and an inclusive economy if we stick to the principles of fair competition and implement the Rooney Rule the right way.
Photo credit: REUTERS / Alamy