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The Rooney Rule: A Systemic Solution to a Systemic Problem

2007 was a pivotal year in the National Football League. In that year, two African American coaches met in the Super Bowl – Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith. This was the first time that a Black head coach was in the Super Bowl, much less two of them. Two years later, in 2009, another African American coach won the Super Bowl.

While not all of this is attributed to the Rooney Rule, the Rule deserves credit for increasing diversity among NFL head coaches. The Rooney Rule, named for Dan Rooney the chair of the league’s diversity committee and owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, was adopted by the NFL in 2003 to avert a major employment discrimination lawsuit and a public relations nightmare. The Rule requires NFL teams to interview candidates of colour, “in good faith” and “with an open mind,” for head coaching and senior operation job openings, or be subjected to significant fines.

Until 1979, there was only one Black head coach in NFL history, which was during the league’s early years in the 1920s. By the time the Rule was implemented, only five African Americans had ever head coaching jobs. Tony Dungy was a pre-Rooney Rule coach, while Lovie Smith was hired in 2004, a move seen by many as a by-product of the Rooney Rule.

Prior to 2004, the highest number of African American head coaches in the NFL at any one time had been three. At the end of the 2005 season, three of the six division titles went to teams led by African American head coaches. All three were finalists for the Coach of the Year, which one of them won.

Important to designing the Rooney Rule was the analysis used. Those who designed the rule didn’t buy into an individual analysis or a situational analysis of the problem. Instead, those who designed the Rooney Rule took systemic approach which prompted a systemic solution. The analysis that precipitate the Rule looked at the number of people of colour employed by NFL teams as head coaches, and 15 years’ worth of statistical data showing that African American head coaches often out performed their White counterparts, yet were terminated more quickly.

They also found that even though other professional sports with large player populations of colour such as the National Basketball Association have succeeded in integrating their head coaching positions, the lack of diversity among NFL head coaches reflected decision-makers’ biases regarding the ability of minority candidates to handle the high degree of organizational complexity in football and the closed old boy networks used to fill these positions.

The pervasiveness of racism and bias along with a closed and biased hiring process required a systemic remedy. The Rule forces decision-makers to open up their networks to candidates of colour. It also requires those harbouring this bias to interview candidates they would never have otherwise considered. This has led to a few surprises, and a few hirings.

While not a perfect cure, the Rooney Rule appears to have been effective at increasing diversity among NFL head coaches. Since the Rule was implemented, the proportion of minority head coaches went from 6% in 2003 (2 head coaches) to 22% (7 head coaches) in 2009. While in 2009 African Americans made up 67% of NFL players.

The same imbalance can be seen in many organizations in which women and/or people of colour and/or immigrants and other groups make up a large proportion of those in entry level positions or those on the frontlines. In many cases, these groups are not represented to the same extent at the higher levels of the organization or in certain departments. In other organizations, there is an under-representation of people of diverse backgrounds throughout the entire organization.

Some analyze these diversity issues and see the issue as being with “those people” – whether it’s “those people don’t apply,” “those people aren’t interested in jobs in this field,” “those people don’t fit in with our work culture,” or “those people are not interested in management positions.” This deflects responsibility away from the organization and its hiring and selection practices, human resource policies, and working environment.

When hiring is based on the “old boy” or “old girl” networks, when biases affect decision-making, or when systemic discrimination is embedded in your hiring and selection processes, nothing “those people” do will create change. A systemic and diversity-informed approach is the only way to understand organizational issues that are rooted in organizational systems. Acknowledging that a problem exists is a start. The next step is ensuring that you appropriately analyze the problem, which will lead you to an appropriate solution…. and hopefully some winning seasons.

Collins, B.W. (2007) Tackling Unconscious Bias in Hiring Practices: The Plight of the Rooney Rule. New York University Law Review, 82(3).

Garber, G. Thanks to Rooney Rule, doors opened. Espn.com. Updated: February 9, 2007. http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/playoffs06/news/story?id=2750645

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