Beneath the Rooney Rule

The NFL’s updated Rooney Rule categorizes women in a half-hearted attempt at diversifying the league.

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Nearly thirty-two percent of NBA and NFL fans believe that female coaches are less qualified than their male counterparts. As a woman who plays sports and hopes to work in the sports industry in the future, I am already well accustomed to hearing such stereotypes. Don’t worry—I am not going to write an article here complaining about the gender pay gap in sports. The topics of media coverage and salary are important but overemphasized. It is equally important to recognize that issues surrounding women in sports transcend the problems involving the wage gap, making their way into the workplace. Take, for instance, the NFL, which has a nearly complete history of male coaches. It’s true that in an exclusively male sport, capable women are less able to form the connections behind most coaching hires. Recently, half-hearted efforts have been made to place women directly into carved out roles, instead of focusing on forming opportunities for women to build the relationships necessary to break into the league’s corporation.

The NFL instated the Rooney Rule in 2003, named after the late chairman of the league’s Workplace Diversity Committee, Dan Rooney, in an attempt to diversify coaching slates. The rule required all teams hiring for a head coach to interview at least one “diverse” candidate, a person from a racial minority. The requirements have been amended several times since then, aiming to eliminate underrepresentation in the league’s employment. Yet the effect of the rule has been minor. One-hundred years ago, there was one Black head coach in the NFL. Today, in a league made up of 70 percent Black players, there are only four. Women are even rarer. The first woman hired for a coaching role was Jen Welter in 2015. The league does not currently employ any female head coaches, and the 2021-2022 season saw just 12 women in coaching positions. Coaching diversity is clearly a pressing issue that the NFL can’t seem to solve, leaving the impression that regulations such as the Rooney Rule may serve a more performative than active purpose.

The NFL announced the updated Rooney Rule on March 28, perhaps in the hopes of more evident change. Part of the enhanced rule includes women in the aforementioned category of “diverse people.” If the new rule stopped there, I would have no complaints. However, the new regulation includes a clause requiring all 32 NFL teams to hire “a female or a member of an ethnic or racial minority” as an offensive coach. This coach will work closely with the head coach and be paid from a separate league fund. The adjustment aims to bring more minorities into the coaching pipeline to eventually vie for head coaching positions. Yet as a woman and a member of an ethnic minority, I find this rule more problematic than liberating.

While diversity in the NFL is certainly a pressing problem, cutting out artificial roles for the inclusion of minorities is the wrong solution. The new Rooney Rule implies that non-white or non-male people are so incapable of attaining these coaching jobs by their own talent that the league needs to set aside a separate fund to assist their shot at an NFL career. It puts each team in a position of obligation to fulfill the requirement of a somewhat performative role in their coaching lineup, and the jobs will be handed out to minorities not because of their qualifications, but rather because they fill the gender or ethnic requirement. Thus, if I was hired for one of these positions, it wouldn’t be because of how hard I had worked to get to that spot. My merit would be less important than my role as a female filler that a team was required to hire. Furthermore, if I was truly qualified for the job, the separate fund the league sets aside for these minority hires evokes my little worth to a team, as my salary doesn’t come out of their pockets, but out of the NFL’s set-aside incentive fund. Categorizing potential hires by physical characteristics of gender and ethnicity rather than coaching adequacy feels forced, and it minimizes the capabilities of minorities.

The ineffectiveness of the previously standing Rooney Rule shows that its requirements only make the minority interview process less thoughtful and more of a chore. “People have said, ‘Let me interview a minority candidate to satisfy the rule, and then I can get on with this hiring process or hire who I want to,’” Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy said. This unfortunate consequence was proven to be true in the Las Vegas Raiders’ hiring of Jon Gruden in 2018. Owner Mark Davis admitted to having selected Gruden, a white man, as coach before conducting any interviews with people of color. This repercussion will only be amplified with the new rule. There are many skilled women who simply don’t have the exposure necessary to make it big in the league with its current cursory processes.

The new Rooney Rule shows lukewarm effort from the NFL in their gender diversity campaign, and other methods would prove more effective in solving the problem. For example, the Women’s Careers in Football Forum (WCFF) should be expanded. The WCFF gathers a group of women working in college football in a conference of presentations and panel discussions to prepare them for a career in the NFL and cultivate relationships. Clearly, networking is imperative, as “coaching circles” are often the main source of new hires. The extension of this invitational forum would bring greater numbers of women in sports together to build connections and find improved opportunities. It would give qualified women a chance to be truly seen for their talent in the field, rather than through an incumbent lens that isolates them by gender. An expansion could make the forum occur more often than annually or open it up to more women, seeing that the forum has proven successful. Most of the women currently coaching in the NFL are WCFF alumni. Additionally, women should be better supported on the road to a head coaching role through increased opportunity to participate in professionally led programs such as the NCAA and NFL Coaches Academy, the NFL Coaching Workshop, and the NFL Career Development Symposium, all of which have been almost entirely male in attendance but could open the doors for women working in football. More important than creating ostensive roles for women in the league is educating aspiring women in sports and making sure they have the exposure necessary to be seen for their talent. If I am ever hired to coach a professional sports team, it will be because I’m the most qualified for the position, not just because I’m a woman.