Posted February 25, 2022 by MyHao Nguyễn

"Enforcement, oversight, and leadership are needed to make real improvements and not have hard-won gains swiftly erased. The N.F.L. is a case study in the loss of these gains and needs to reinvigorate their commitment to diversity."

Reinvigorating the Rooney Rule

By: MyHao Nguyen

Friday, February 25

Taking effect in 2003, the Rooney Rule was implemented to correct inequities at the head coaching level of the National Football League (N.F.L.) by “mandat[ing] that every [N.F.L.] team interview at least one minority candidate upon the vacancy of a head coaching position or be subjected to a significant monetary fine.”[1] The hope was based on simple math; if there were “more candidates from different backgrounds” in the hiring process, there would be a higher chance of a “diverse candidate” being hired.[2] The rule did not require actual hiring; instead, the rule depended on the good faith of the team owners to consider qualified diverse candidates beyond a mere interview.[3]

Despite the low bar of the Rooney Rule requirement to include diversity in the interview process, N.F.L. teams have flaunted the Rooney Rule.[4] As indicated by the former Miami Dolphins Coach Brian Flores in his lawsuit for racial discrimination against the N.F.L. on February 1, 2022, “[t]he Rooney Rule is not working."[5] Instead, the operation of the Rooney Rule has become “nothing more than a discriminatory façade designed to show false compliance.”[6] The Rooney Rule façade became evident when a text from Bill Belichick, another N.F.L. head coach, congratulated the wrong Brian on getting the coaching job “three days before” Brian Flores’ interview for the head coaching position.[7] The recency of Brian Flores’s lawsuit has shed new light upon the Rooney Rule, but he was never alone in his struggle.

“Black coaches have long complained that they . . . were not considered serious candidates,” and their interviews operated as merely Rooney Rule checkboxes.[8] Even though Black players account for more than 70% of the N.F.L.’s players, the composition of the coaches and executives is not even close to proportional, only barely 3%.[9] As a result of Flores’s lawsuit, one could expect that, at the minimum, the N.F.L. returns to respect the spirit of the Rooney Rule and even implements hiring requirements.

            The root of the problem is the lack of an accountability mechanism for results. While Dan Rooney was alive promoting the spirit of the Rooney Rule and the N.F.L. threatened consequences for infractions of the Rooney Rule, progress was made, and 17 non-white coaches were hired.[10] However, after Dan Rooney died and the N.F.L. stripped the teeth out of the rule by failing to impose fines on the Oakland Raiders when they hired Jon Gruden in 2017,[11] “before holding sham interviews with Black candidates,” prior progress and gains were diminished.[12] The number of Black head coaches plummeted.[13] Without real consequences, the teeth and spirit of the rule were lost.

            Copying the N.F.L.’s example, corporations have adopted the Rooney Rule in their hiring process.[14] Corporations now require women and minority candidates to be included when hiring.[15] Many companies’ job announcements now tend to be accompanied by diversity language, and corporations issue diversity statements.[16] Unsurprisingly, America is just a microcosm of the diversity battle at the N.F.L. despite statements supporting diversity and inclusion, the diversity on corporate boards is “unacceptably low.”[17] Even though corporations have continued to voluntarily pledge to improve the diversity and inclusiveness of their boards, underrepresented ethnic and racial groups makeup “12.5 percent of board directors, only slightly more than the 10 percent level measured five years earlier”[18], according to the “Institutional Shareholder Services’ ESG division” in its 2020 analysis.[19] In a Nasdaq study in 2021, the board diversity statistics furnished by public companies under SEC’s voluntary diversity rule is considered “significantly unreliable and unusable to investors” because of inconsistent definitions and disclosures as well as limited data on diversity characteristics beyond gender.[20] Therefore, Nasdaq took a stronger move by imposing a quantified requirement on diversity and inclusion in actual hiring.[21] It requires boards to have at least one woman and one director who self-identifies as an underrepresented group or to disclose in detail why they have failed to reach this minimum goal.[22] Failure to comply with the new diversity disclosure requirements will result in delisting, a threat of catastrophic consequences.[23]

Since discriminatory lawsuits heavily require actual intent, the outcome of Flores’ lawsuit is unclear. However, regardless of the outcome of Flores’ lawsuit, it is obvious that the current Rooney Rule needs stronger transparency and accountability. Learning from Nasdaq’s rule of disclosing actual diversity of the boards of directors, the N.F.L. should escalate the interview requirements to requiring actual diversity in hiring and annual disclosure of the diversity of each team’s coaching and front offices staff. Additionally, they should add more teeth to this rule by “delisting” the team out of the following year’s game schedule if they do not comply with the diversity disclosure. The effectiveness of any measure aimed at racial and gender progress is linked to the institutional commitment to fulfill this cause. Enforcement, oversight, and leadership are needed to make real improvements and not have hard-won gains swiftly erased. The N.F.L. is a case study in the loss of these gains and needs to reinvigorate their commitment to diversity.

[1] Brian W. Collins, Tackling Unconscious Bias in Hiring Practices: The Plight of the Rooney Rule, NYU L. Rev. (June 2007), [].

[2] Scott Neuman, Why A 20-Year Effort by The NFL Hasn't Led to More Minorities in Top Coaching Jobs, N.P.R. (Feb. 3, 2022), [].

[3] Id.

[4] See id.

[5] Complaint at 1, Flores v. N.F.L., No. 22-cv-0087 (S.D.N.Y. filed Feb. 01, 2022) (accessing to online file at the New York Times at [].

[6] Id. at 37. 

[7] Id. at 1.

[8] Ken Belson and Jenny Vrentas, Brian Flores Sues N.F.L., Claiming Bias in Coaching Search, N.Y. Times (Feb. 01, 2022), [].

[9] Neuman, supra note 2.

[10] Zac Al-Khateeb, What Is the Rooney Rule? Explaining NFL Mandate to Interview Minority Candidates, Its Effectiveness and Criticisms, Sporting News (Feb. 02, 2022), [].

[11] Steve Almasy Jon Gruden Has Resigned as Head Coach of The Las Vegas Raiders After Reports of Homophobic, Racist and Misogynistic Emails, CNN (Oct. 12, 2021 [] (stating Jon Gruden recently resigned “after reports of homophobic, racist and misogynistic emails”).

[12] Cyrus Mehri, Opinion: How the NFL Fumbled the Battle for Equal Opportunity in Coaching, Wash. Post (Feb. 04, 2022), [].

[13] Id.

[14] Companies Adopt Rooney Rule, Add Women and Minorities to Boards as Midwest Investors Diversity Initiative Gains Momentum, GlobeNewswire (Aug. 13, 2019, 8:00 AM), [].

[15] Id.

[16] See Ashley Stahl, What's to Come in 2021 For Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in The Workplace, Forbes (Apr. 14, 2021), [] (“In response to this deeply charged and meaningful moment in our history, many companies and industry leaders felt pressure to make public their commitment to rectifying institutional bias within their own homes. Many issued statements and launched initiatives to combat discrimination and cultural bias.”).

[17] Alexandra Thornton and Anjunae Chandran, How to Make Corporate Boards More Diverse, Center for American Progress (Sep. 29, 2021), [].

[18] Id.

[19] Peter Eavis, Diversity Push Barely Budges Corporate Boards to 12.5%, Survey Finds, N.Y. Times (Sep. 7, 2021), [].

[20] Thornton and Chandran, supra note 17.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

Friday, February 25, 2022