Has the Rooney Rule Improved the NFL’s Racial Hiring Practices?

Published: Feb 18, 2023  |  

Academic Director of Graduate Programs in New York

Illustration by Nikki Muller

With the recent hiring of former San Francisco 49ers Defensive Coordinator DeMeco Ryans by the Houston Texans, the number of Black NFL head coaches is now at four. Super Bowl-winning head coach Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh Steelers) is the longest-tenured Black NFL head coach after recently completing his 16 seasons, followed by Todd Bowles (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Mike McDaniel (Miami Dolphins).

Ron Rivera (Washington Commanders), who is of Latino descent, and the New York Jets’ Robert Saleh (of Egyptian and Lebanese descent) bring the total number of minority NFL coaches to six out of the 32 coaching jobs. When Lovie Smith was hired as the head coach of the Houston Texans in 2022, he spoke brazenly about the NFL’s problem with the lack of diversity in its head coach process. He ended up lasting only a year in the top coaching job, eventually backfilled by DeMeco Ryans. With the Arizona Cardinals selecting non-minority Jonathan Gannon as the final new coach in the 2023 head coaching cycle, the number of Black coaches in the NFL currently remains the same today from a year ago.

Since Fritz Pollard became the first Black NFL head coach (Akron Pros) in 1921, followed 68 years later by Art Shell (Raiders) in 1989, the number of Black and minority coaches have been inconsistent at best. Over the years, prominent Black coaches like Sherman Lewis, Dennis Green, and Super Bowl-winning head coach Tony Dungy followed in the footsteps of both Pollard and Shell. Still, a definable coaching pipeline has never materialized. 

2017 saw the highest number of minority head coaches with eight when Marvin Jones, Mike Tomlin, Hugh Jackson, Jim Caldwell, Ron Rivera, Jim Caldwell, Todd Bowles, Vance Joseph, and Anthony Lynn roamed the NFL sidelines. The NFL’s Rooney Rule was likely a factor in this increase in the number of minority head coaches in 2017, but five years later, as that number decreased, the Rooney Rule may not have been enough.

The NFL’s Rooney Rule

In 2003, the NFL’s Rooney Rule established criteria for providing equitable opportunities for Black and minority coaches to gain access to fair opportunities in the coaching-hiring processes. Within this rule, all teams are required to interview at least one minority candidate for open head coaching and general manager (and later revised in 2022 to include racial minority and women for coaching staff) positions. The Rooney Rule provides an opportunity-based system over a quota system for minority candidates interviewing for positions historically not offered. 

This opportunity-based system was proposed by the late Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Chairman of the NFL’s Diversity Committee. I have followed the evolution of the NFL’s Rooney Rule for so many years that I included it as the focal point of my doctoral dissertation in 2009, when I suggested how a similar system could impact NCAA Division I head coaches (where a similar underrepresentation exists). I had high hopes for the Rooney Rule to level the playing field for minority head coaches, and I am surprised at the lack of consistency the policies have had in gaining sustainable traction.  

In 2020, the NFL passed the JC-2A resolution to the Rooney Rule, which rewarded franchises for developing pipelines for GM (General Manager) and head coaches of minority descent. If a team lost a minority coach or executive to another team, that team would be compensated with an additional “Third-Round” compensatory pick for two years. This addendum to the rule, in my opinion, should have incentivized clubs to invest heavily in minority talent, as the reward of additional draft picks is like gold to NFL teams.

Clearly this wasn’t the case, as the number of minority coaches in recent years has plummeted to pre-Rooney Rule levels. Former Miami coach Brian Flores’ ongoing lawsuit against three clubs (Miami Dolphins, Denver Broncos, and New York Giants) and the NFL claiming bias in the coaching selection process, further underscores the need for a stronger system to be in place. 

The Race and Gender Scorecard tells a different story

The 2022 Race and Gender Scorecard from the Institute for Ethics and Diversity in Sports (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida granted the NFL a “B+” on racial hiring practices. The status of the NFL’s Rooney Rule and the NFL’s campaign to increase diversity for Black head coaches has been a hot-button topic for many years. While the media speaks loudly about the lack of minority head coaches in the NFL, the numbers show the NFL has made significant strides for both Black and minority coaches as well as executives at the league and team levels. Currently, there are all-time highs in the number of minority general managers (8), highlighted by Andrew Berry of the Cleveland Browns who is the first Black man in this role in team history. Additionally, six women of color were in coaching positions, highlighted by Jennifer King of the Washington Commanders. 

Off the field, there is further evidence of significant year-over-year increases for minority executives at the NFL. In 2022, 29% (an increase from 26.5 in 2021) of the vice presidents at the NFL’s league office were people of color. Also, at the team level, 17.9% of the vice presidents were people of color (an increase from 13.7 in 2021) showing a pattern of improvement that is rarely highlighted by the media.

Final thoughts on NFL minority hiring policies and procedures 

The NFL’s effort to diversify the pipeline for minority coaches and executives should be applauded. While the efforts of the Rooney Rule may not be leading directly to sustainable increases in the number of minority head coaches, the residual impact has shown tremendous gains in general managers, minority women coaches, and league/team executives (vice presidents). 

As the NFL continues to launch new minority-based initiatives, such as last year’s Diversity Advisory Committee (consisting of external non-NFL members), I remain hopeful for the future outlook of the league’s DEI strategy. The NFL’s racial hiring practices still have a long way to go, but it is heading in the right direction. As long it keeps moving forward, I believe we will see lasting and meaningful changes for people of color at the top coaching levels of the NFL.

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