Under the microscope: The Rooney Rule and how it came to be


Yesterday, we reported on the decision of the Liberal Democrats leadership candidates to commit to adopting the Rooney Rule. This is a decision which would be the first of its kind in British politics, and has the potential to fundamentally change the level of representation in party politics, by ensuring the presence of at least one minority ethnic candidate on the final shortlists for parliamentary contests. The existence of a ‘Rooney Rule’ may come as a surprise to some, but as we explain, it has already had its bearings in numerous other fields…

What is the Rooney Rule?

To understand the Rooney Rule we need to go back to the 2002 NFL and the sackings of two black coaches: Tony Dungy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dennis Green of the Minnesota Vikings. The sackings of two black coaches in relatively quick succession raised concerns as to whether a league which fielded a high number of black players had done enough to ensure that black coaches were given an equal opportunity in positions of management and coaching.

The sackings of Dungy and Green were compounded by the fact that Green had suffered what was his first losing season in 10 years, while the Buccaneers (headed by Dungy) recorded a winning record (9-7) only to be halted by Philadelphia in the Wild Card Playoffs for the second year in a row. This is important to remember because as much as the Rooney Rule seeks to address the absence of opportunity (1) it was also born address the unequal conditions which saw black coaches held to a different standard than their white counterparts (2) - so it is not only a matter of opportunity but the conditions which exist when opportunity is earned.

Dungy in particular was a popular coach, given that his arrival had ushered in an era of competitiveness for the Buccaneers. Having arrived in 1996 to a franchise with a losing record stretching back 13 years, they were able to reach the play-offs four times in the six seasons with him at the helm.

The sackings highlighted the absence of black coaches within the league (with which there was now only one) and prompted U.S. civil rights attorneys Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie Cochran to release the now breakthrough study showing that black head coaches, despite winning a higher percentage of games, were less likely to be hired and more likely to be fired than their white counterparts. Drawing from the experiences of Dungy and a number of other coaches such as Art Shell, Ray Rhoades, Herman Edwards, Sherman Lewis, Emmitt Thomas and more, Mehri and Cochran presented the case that black NFL head coaches were held to a higher standard than their white counterparts, and were consequently denied a fair chance to compete for head coaching jobs. In their findings they concluded:

“The uniformity of the results comparing regular season wins and playoff records for white and black coaches in various ways is striking. No matter how we look at success, black coaches are performing better. These data are consistent with the blacks having to be better coaches than whites in order to get a job as a head coach in the NFL. The small number of black coaches is likely not to be just a "pipeline" problem. The black coach candidates in the pipeline seem to be held to a higher standard by the team in the National Football League.

The report, alongside the formation of an ‘affinity group’ composed of minority coaches and further lobbying from the leagues then Chairman of the Diversity committee saw the ‘Rooney Rule’ come into effect in 2003.

Has it been successful?

If we’re to look at the numbers in isolation the answer is categorically yes. Since taking effect the number of coaches has risen markedly rising to five black head coaches in 2004, six in 2005 and peaking in 2011 and once again in 2017 at a share of 25% (eight) black head coaches in the NFL. This figure would have been unimaginable prior to the implementation of the rule. If we’re to capture the wider trend of minority coaches both before and after the Rooney Rule, 23 out of the 139 (including interim head coaches) have been head coaches since 2000, a rate of 17%. Neil Payne of FiveThirtyEight provided excellent analysis as to the impact of the Rooney Rule since implementation.

Paine stated: Research by the late economist CC DuBois showed that the Rooney Rule did actually have a positive effect on coaching diversity, compared with NCAA coaches and NFL coordinators, who did not have similar interview requirements. You can trace an almost continuously rising line from 2002, when only 6.3 percent of games were coached by people of color, to that 27.1 percent number from 2011, and surely the Rooney Rule played a major role in the increase.

However, the Rooney Rule has not been a silver bullet. Since 2017 the number of minority head coaches has dipped. Following the 2018 season, five black coaches were fired and and only 12.5% of the regular season games for 2019 were coached by non-white coaches. As of now there are only four minority head coaches and two minority general managers, but It has also faced further criticism for promoting a culture of sham interviews which undermine attempts to correct for the league's failure in dealing with black and minority coaches.

And over in the UK?

The Liberal Democrats decision to commit to Rooney Rule would not be the first time we’ve seen it adopted in the UK. The Football Association first adopted the rule, January 1 2018. Its introduction meant that at least one Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic applicant must be interviewed by FA figures for coaching positions, from youth level up to the senior teams, for both men and women. It has since been employed by the English Football League whose pilot version which was tested during the 2016/17 season eventually saw it adopted in 2019.

We have yet to see it gain a foothold within party politics however which is why last week's announcement could prove so consequential, both in terms of giving minority candidates an assured platform to at least be able to compete, but also shifting standards and norms across the board in the selection process. As it’s history in the NFL demonstrates though, it does not represent a silver bullet. If we are to have a truly representative parliament, work must continue across the board to ensure that it becomes a reality.

Mayowa Ayodele


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