The Latest Rooney Rule Revision: Opening the Door for Minority Candidates to Break into the NFL’s Head Coaching Pipeline

Jenna Reifler – At its annual owners meeting in March 2022, the NFL announced a revision to the Rooney Rule, along with a series of policy enhancements to address the League’s lack of managerial diversity. Effective for the 2022 NFL season, the latest Rooney Rule policy requires all 32 teams to employ a “female or a member of an ethnic or racial minority” as an offensive assistant coach. At its inception, the Rooney Rule sought to expand access to coaching jobs for ethnic minorities. Now, the rule also seeks to diversify the League’s coaching and coordinator ranks by helping women secure coaching jobs.

The National Football League (“NFL” or “League”) is the highest-grossing professional sports league in the United States, generating tens of billions of dollars in revenue annually. Much of the League’s financial success is attributable to the athletic talent of the players on each of its 32 teams—71% of whom were people of color in 2021. Yet, in stark contrast, only 15% of the NFL’s head coaching positions in 2021 were occupied by people of color—a  gap that the NFL has been trying to close since it first adopted the Rooney Rule in 2003. “There are many outstanding Black men and other men and women of color in the NFL. The pipeline is as strong as it has ever been. The issue is not in the sufficiency of numbers; the problem is in the limited number of leadership opportunities given.” – Rod Graves, Executive Director of Fritz Pollard Alliance.

Prior to the recent policy change, the Rooney Rule required every team to interview at least two external minority candidates for open head coaching positions and at least one for coordinator roles. Many minority candidates who were passed over for coaching positions, including former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, brought a class-action lawsuit in 2022 alleging that the Rooney Rule is a “sham” that leads to discriminatory interview processes by teams who conduct superficial interviews to satisfy the rule’s requirements. The Rooney Rule revision announced in 2022 eradicates the possibility of superficial interview processes for offensive assistant coaching positions and guarantees a place for minority coaches in the NFL—but will it be effective in generating broader diversity across the board? The NFL’s occupational report hiring statistics suggest that it might.

Offensive coordinator positions are generally understood to be the primary pipeline for aspiring NFL head coaches: an overwhelming 50% of all head coaches hired between 2012 and 2021 once served as offensive coordinators in the NFL. In that same period, however, only 12 men of color were hired as offensive coordinators with the remaining 107 open positions filled by white men. Most head coaching positions are filled through professional relationships and the “reshuffling” of current staff. However, when people of color make up just 16% of that pool of prospective candidates, “reshuffling” reduces the number of opportunities for new minority talent to break into the head coaching pipeline. Through the revised Rooney Rule’s hiring requirements, and ensuring that a minimum of 32 new minority assistant offensive coordinators will be included in the NFL’s upcoming season, a new wave of candidates will have the opportunity to break into the elusive head coaching pipeline.

Despite showing promise, the effectiveness of the 2022 Rooney Rule policy is uncertain. The National Basketball Association (“NBA”), for example, found success in growing the diversity of its coaching and executive staff without resorting to a policy like the Rooney Rule. Rather, the NBA and its Board of Governors approach increasing diversity by making it an integral discussion among all executives and teams, listening to its players, and increasing networking opportunities in order to develop all qualified coaching candidates. The 2022 Rooney Rule policy may also face legal challenges. Some experts speculate that the policy change invites litigation by mandating a gender or racial based hiring quota and thus violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

While the effectiveness of the NFL’s latest Rooney Rule policy remains to be seen, the successful 2021 season and Super Bowl win by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers show the tangible benefits of hiring a diverse coaching staff. The Buccaneers have one of the most diverse coaching staffs in the NFL; 15 members of its 29-person coaching staff are minorities, and men of color serve as offensive, defensive, and special teams coordinators. At least for now, the revised Rooney Rule shows the League’s commitment to expanding diversity in its head coaching pipeline and increasing opportunities for minorities. Only time will tell how well the policy functions in practice.

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