Revisiting the Rooney rule

The NFL is looking to diversify its front offices, and turning to a play that has worked before:

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Thursday that the league will institute a Rooney Rule for women when it comes to all NFL executive positions

“You can see that progress is being made and our commitment is, we have something called the Rooney Rule, which requires us to make sure when we have an opening that on the team or the league level that we are going to interview a diverse slate of candidates.

“Well, we’re going to make that commitment and we’re going to formalize that we, as a league, are going to do that for women as well in all of our executive positions. Again, we’re going to keep making progress here and make a difference.”

Uh… Did anyone catch that? Maybe a female commissioner would know how to form a coherent sentence.

Let’s try again: The league is implementing a version of its “Rooney Rule” for front office searches, mandating that women are included in searches. When implemented in 2003, the rule required teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching vacancies and eventually front office jobs.

Surely, teams have brought in “check-the-box” candidates they had no intention of hiring just to keep on the sunny side of the rule. There is no mandate to hire minority coaches, only to interview candidates.

Yet, the rule has clearly worked – teams have hired more minority coaches in the past 13 years than they had in the previous eight decades. There is unmistakable progress.

Two possible reasons for this stand out.

First is the opportunity for media buzz. Coaching searches aren’t conducted in secret; as soon as an NFL coach is fired, local and national media speculate about who might be next. The candidates who make their way to team headquarters for an interview are duly documented. This puts even the minority candidates’ names out there as potential head coaches. Even if a would-be coach doesn’t get a job during one offseason, he strengthens his candidacy for the future. Hiring a first-time head coach isn’t easy for most notoriously risk-averse NFL front offices, but that option becomes more palatable if the candidate has been discussed as a head coach prospect.

Second, the Rooney Rule interviews may be dog-and-pony shows to the team executives, but they don’t have to be for the candidates. Thanks to the Rooney Rule, a minority candidate has a chance to prepare and endure the interview process. Again, it might not help him get the first job he interviews for, but go through a practice run can only help in future years, when his candidacy may be more serious.

Teams won’t hire unqualified candidates, but rules like this can help qualified candidates prepare. The ten minority coaches who have been hired since the Rooney Rule’s inception weren’t hired because their teams were forced to interview them, but the rule might have given them valuable experience or put them on teams’ radar when coaching vacancies popped up.

If the NFL is serious about getting more women in its front offices, this is probably a good place to start.


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