The NFL's Rooney Rule Will Apply To Women Now, Sort Of

As many people heard last week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stated last week at a conference before Super Bowl 50 that the NFL is creating a Rooney Rule for women. Yes, this is a long overdue step, and intentions are good. I, personally, was thrilled to hear that the League wants to commit to having diversity at the organization, but something seemed off. What real effect is the Rooney Rule likely to have? Breaking it down and putting it in context may give us an idea.

Source: Matthew Emmons / USA TODAY Sports;

Source: Matthew Emmons / USA TODAY Sports;

What Is a "rooney Rule"?

The Rooney Rule is named after Dan Rooney, the Pittsburgh Steelers chairman. The NFL implemented the rule in 2003 and, in its original state, mandated that every team with an open head coach position interview one or more minority candidates for the job. Then, the League extended the rule further to include more managerial positions a few years later. Minority used to refer to ethnicity or race until last week when Goodell stated he would create a version of the Rooney Rule specifically for women. Sure, at first glance it appears like a "token" interview akin to college affirmative action, but the rule has had support overall because non-white coaches are less likely to advance to head coaching jobs than their similarly-qualified white counterparts.

For example, the Detroit Lions were fined $200,000 in 2003 for failing to interview a minority candidate for its open head coaching position when the team hired Steve Mariucci immediately after firing Marty Mornhinweg. That's Matt Millen for you. 

How will the NFL Apply this for women?

Goodell said that the Rooney Rule "requires [the NFL] 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 with women as well in all of our executive positions." The NFL later clarified how it will apply the rule to women, though, to where it does not rise to a real extension of the current NFL policy exactly.

Why is this not an extension, exactly? Well, the women's Rooney Rule only will require the League office in New York, not the individual teams, to interview women for executive positions. In contrast, the rule as it sits now with respect to minorities in general has the franchises as well as the League office within its scope.

Why Did Goodell Decide to extend this Rule?

First, look at the League office statistics. 30% of its 330 employees and, furthermore, 25% of its 120 executive-level positions are women. That's it. Those statistics themselves are sufficient to support the good intentions behind this rule.

Second, look at Goodell's exact language. "We have something called the Rooney Rule which requires us to make sure when we have an opening at ... the league level, that we are going to interview a diverse slate of candidates ... and we're going to formalize that we, as a league, are going to do that with women as well in all of our executive positions." These are a few points that speak to me:

  • "[W]e are going to interview" is obviously not the same as "We are going to hire," but at least it gives women a chance to have their qualifications not be tainted by gender. By opening up the candidate pool, women will be more likely to get hired compared to before and will compete directly with similarly qualified men. 
  • "In all of our executive positions" is neat because it is still taboo, to an extent, to have women hold executive offices in the business world generally let alone the sports world. I am curious to see which executive positions women are actually hired to fill to see whether they are considered more for the stereotypical female-friendly (e.g., public relations, communications) roles.
  • Again, this branch of the rule places requirements on the League only, but that may be because teams are finally starting to hire women in roles for which they would never get one look ten years ago. Even then, the officiating Sarah Thomas, the Cardinals' Jen Welter, & the Bills' Kathryn Smith probably faced an insane amount of adversity. Maybe they still do. Here, the League pretty much admitted that it needed the extra push.

Lastly, look at hiring trends since 2003. One study by professors from Georgetown, George Washington, Emory, and Iowa State supports what is called the "white coach effect." In short, it shows that from 1985 to 2012, hiring practices in the NFL did not change very much despite the Rooney Rule implementation. White coaches are far more likely to be promoted through the ranks to position coach and coordinator jobs, which is how people make the cut to score interviews for head coaching jobs. Moreover, the authors wrote, "Black coaches are less likely to be promoted than white ones, independent of their first position, their current position, their employer, their prior experience, their education and their age" and that the "white coach effect" has not declined at all. If the original rule has not had the desired effect 13 years later, women may continue to suffer a paralleled fate. It may have little to no effect on current hiring trends, unfortunately. I'll choose to be positive!

In Conclusion

The Rooney Rule may be a wimpy Band-Aid trying to heal a larger problem with employment discrimination. After all, Goodell is known for making rules that have no real substance to them. The worst case scenario is that focusing on a new extension of the Rooney Rule could serve as a distraction from the seriousness of CTE and the fact that the NFL does not know what to do about it and that it scares the crap out of them. As a woman who wants to continue to work her way through the sports industry, I am satisfied that Goodell is actually acknowledging the League's shortcomings and is willing to discuss this issue publicly.

Jaime MiettinenComment