Why the Rooney Rule is Not Enough

by Gus Griffin







In the Spring of 1994, I was completing my first year as a teaching intern at the Lowell School in Washington, DC. It was one of several prestigious private schools in the area, predominantly white, that had formed a minority teaching intern program. The idea was that this would create a pool of teaching candidates from which the schools could choose from to increase the diversity among their teaching cadre. As a result, that Spring I had multiple interviews with schools in the area, from Sidwell Friends (where the children of presidents have attended) to Landon. The interviews had two things in common: 1) all the schools were run by and served the upper class of DC; and 2) there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that I was going to get hired.

But I served their purpose of being able to say, “We reached out”.

Whenever this time of year in the NFL comes around, it reminds me of that experience.  Black coaching candidates are on display like show ponies, often with little to no chance of actually getting hired. It’s all a byproduct of the Rooney Rule, which mandates that teams interview a minority candidate for NFL head coaching and general manager vacancies. It also validates my contention that the Rooney Rule, though effective to some extent, is not enough to get a management demographic that is reflective of the player demographics in the NFL.

To really understand the core issues here, it’s important to realize that the hiring process anywhere consists of two fundamental aspects: 1) Systemic; and 2) Cultural.

Systemic change can be largely accomplished through changes in policies, especially those with foreseeable outcomes. In this respect, the rule has been generally effective. Since its inception in 2003, more minority head coaches and GMs have been hired than in all the 70 years prior in the NFL. Its major limitation is that it does not extend to the most common source of head coaching candidates, which is offensive and defensive coordinators. The conventional thinking is that a head coach needs to be able to hire his own staff to give him the best chance to succeed. I have no football-based rejection of that notion, so I will not pretend otherwise.

The other aspect of hiring is culture. While systemic change is largely fostered by changes in policies and rules, the only way to change a culture is to either change the minds of people or get rid of those whose mindsets are at odds with the culture one wants to build.

And that is essentially where the Rooney Rule is limited in its capacity to change the hiring practices in the NFL. As the old saying goes, “you cannot legislate morality”. What happened when laws were introduced to curb money laundering, mandating banks to report deposits of $10K or more? The launderers simply kept their deposit under that number, because while the law could modify observable behavior, it could do nothing to change the mindset of the launderers. They put on the dog and pony show of compliance while continuing to think in a way that undermined the spirt of the law. Likewise, NFL teams do the same when they invite Black men to interview for jobs that they have no intention of seriously considering to hire.

I am not suggesting that there is no value in going through the interview process. I actually believe that there is. I am suggesting emphatically that the interview skills of Black head coaching candidates are not remotely the central issue. The mindset of those in power is the issue.

I serve as a Know Your Rights facilitator through The American Civil Liberties Union. The trainings are geared to educate the public about what to do and what not to do when pulled over by the police. I believe that they can literally save lives and thus cannot be trivialized. I am, nevertheless, somewhat conflicted when I do them because it can leave the impression that those being killed are the problem. They are not. The problem is the mindset of the people with the power to kill them with impunity.

The problem is not the coaching candidates. The problem is the mindset of those with the power to hire the candidates, which specifically are the 32 NFL owners, most of whom are white and all of whom are very, very rich. If you believe anyone that gets to that place in life is going to change his mind because of a rule, good luck.

Ultimately, the Rooney Rule needs to stay in place for the clear improvement it has shown and because doing nothing is not an option. It is an important step in the right direction on the systemic side of the issue. But we should be sober about its limitations.


Gus Griffin, for War Room Sports

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