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NFL ‘Rooney’ Rule Creator Says Coach’s Suit Exposes Hiring Flaws

Feb. 2, 2022, 8:18 PM

The architect of the National Football League’s “Rooney” Rule says the hiring policy has failed to diversify the league’s top positions because of shortcomings in how it’s implemented, despite being widely adopted by U.S. banks, tech companies, and law firms.

The rule, adopted by the NFL in 2003 and named after the late Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, requires teams to interview at least two candidates of color for head coaching positions. It was criticized in former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores’s discrimination lawsuit, which accuses the league of disingenuous efforts to increase racial representation in top jobs. Nearly two decades after adoption, the league has only one Black head coach, the suit noted.

Civil rights attorney Cyrus Mehri, who played an integral role in creating the rule, says its effectiveness in the NFL is tied to poor efforts to enforce it.

“You have a successful rule, but it requires enforcement, it requires good-faith implementation, and the fact is that the league has moved mountains to have an inclusive set of policies,” Mehri, a founding partner of Mehri & Skalet PLLC, told Bloomberg Law. “The rule has to have teeth.”

The NFL didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the rule’s efficacy.

“Well intentioned or not, what is clear is that the Rooney Rule is not working,” Flores’s lawsuit says. It argues that head coach interviews aren’t conducted in good faith, and create a stigma around Black candidates.

Corporate Adoption

Since the NFL created the rule, it has been adopted in some form by companies like JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp., and Facebook, as well as some states and cities, to include requirements to interview women and people of color for leadership positions. Some implement the rule for company-wide hiring.

It’s also been incorporated into settlements of shareholder lawsuits that push companies to take a more active role in increasing diversity and inclusion.

“Any time we have such rules in place, they can be manipulated,” said Julie Goldsmith Reiser, a partner at Cohen, Milstein, Sellers & Toll PLLC, who has included the “Rooney” Rule and other diversity efforts in shareholder settlements, including a $310 million pact with Alphabet Inc.'s Google in 2020. “What we’re talking about here is checking-the-box compliance.”

There has been little empirical evidence that the rule, alone, has led to significant increases in representation either on or off the field. For professional football, specifically, a 2010 study from Indiana University determined that the rule had little impact on hiring more head coaches. However, it said the league should focus on recruiting more African-Americans and Latinos into the pipeline through lower-level coaching positions.

In the corporate world, a 2016 study from the University of Colorado found that when a pool of job candidates contained only one woman or person of color, the chances that person would be hired were essentially zero.

Without accountability, simply changing the composition of a hiring pool won’t make a difference, but there is evidence that broader pressure and ambitious diversity goals have led to some success in recent years, said Stefanie Johnson, a professor at the University of Colorado, who authored the study.

“There is buy-in across corporate America to increase diversity,” Johnson said. “There is cognitive bias and an unconscious bias toward the default candidate. If everyone you interview is a White coach who isn’t Black, it implies that the default must actually be the correct choice.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Erin Mulvaney in Washington at emulvaney@bloomberglaw.com; Paige Smith in Washington at psmith@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jay-Anne B. Casuga at jcasuga@bloomberglaw.com; John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com