If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the NFL’s Rooney Rule -- which requires that every NFL team searching for a head coach must interview at least one candidate of color -- should be blushing.
Last week, Gordon Taylor, the head of England’s Professional Footballers’ Association decried the lack of diversity among managers of professional soccer clubs in England. Starting with the Premier League and going down through England’s lower soccer divisions, black managers are astoundingly scarce. Only one of the 92 clubs has a black manager, and in the history of English soccer there have only been a handful of black managers.
Taylor says this is a huge problem, and he believes the Rooney Rule may be the answer: "We have got to learn from other sports and other countries, and we saw how many top quality black gridiron players there were and how few black coaches ... but they came in with that rule and it’s made a difference, and now it’s become assimilated into the culture of the NFL."
Taylor is right about the impact that the Rooney Rule has had in the NFL. When the movement that launched the Rooney Rule began nine years ago, one out of 32 NFL head coaches were of color. Today, eight out of 32 are of color. Taylor is also correct about the rule’s impact on NFL culture. In light of the rule’s success in the head coaching ranks, the NFL expanded the rule to the front office, and now five of the league’s 32 general managers are of color. Moreover, the head coaches and general managers are largely successful. Of the 10 teams in the last five Super Bowls, seven have featured a general manager or head coach of color.
Still, every winter, when NFL teams fire and hire coaches, the rule gets roundly maligned. It is the butt of jokes and the source of substantial contention in newspapers, on sports radio shows, and around the water cooler. And the attacks come from all sides: some commentators belittle the rule as an ineffective, pro forma requirement that teams essentially laugh off and ignore, while others attack it as insidious reverse discrimination that is destroying the NFL.
Taylor recognizes what these folks don’t: Despite imperfections, the Rooney Rule is the most effective equal opportunity initiative we’ve recently seen in American sport, and if it can transform the culture of the traditionally conservative NFL, it can work anywhere. Taylor, by the way, isn’t alone in his view. The Rooney Rule is catching on all over the place:
• The Division I-A Athletic Directors’ Association has issued guidelines strongly encouraging the nation’s Football Bowl Subdivision programs to interview at least one person of color before hiring a head coach.
• The state of Oregon has passed legislation requiring that its seven public universities interview at least one person of color when searching for athletic directors as well as head coaches for all of their athletic programs.
• The Florida and Alabama legislatures have considered similar legislation.
• Sportswriter Christine Brennan has argued that the traditionally male United States Olympic Committee should institute a Rooney Rule analog to ensure that women are considered for positions with the USOC.
And the Rooney Rule’s influence has not been limited to sport:
• Some time ago, the Association of Art Museum Directors approached one of the Rooney Rule’s architects to discuss how such a rule might help to diversify the leadership ranks of America’s art museums.
• Luis Aguilar, one of the five commissioners on the Securities and Exchange Commission, has suggested that some form of the Rooney Rule should be implemented with respect to corporate board nominations.
• The National Urban League has issued a statement suggesting that Corporate America, in which CEOs and other high-ranking executives of color are few, take a lesson from what the Rooney Rule has done for the NFL.
Surely some soccer fans across the pond will object to some form of the Rooney Rule being implemented in the EPL. But skeptics should be aware of a possible side effect of the rule: winning.