What is the Rooney Rule? More on the NFL’s Diversity Policy

The coaching carousel has begun spinning in the NFL, and that means a discussion on the Rooney Rule. The rule has been in place since 2003, yet there’s still a lot of confusion surrounding it and the NFL diversity policy as a whole. How does the rule apply to teams searching for head coaches, and when is it not applicable?

What is the Rooney Rule, exactly?

Dungy and Green’s firings sparked outrage among many minorities throughout NFL circles. A subsequent study showed black head coaches were less likely to be hired and more likely to be fired — despite winning more games — than white coaches.

This led former NFL players Kellen Winslow and John Wooten to form a group seeking to correct what they viewed as an injustice. The fruits of this group led to the Rooney Rule — named after Dan Rooney, Steelers owner and former head of the NFL’s diversity policy committee.

The Rooney Rule seeks to give minority candidates a better shot at the table. To achieve this, the rule states at least one minority candidate must be interviewed for all head coaching openings. Since the rule’s inception, the frequency of black and minority coaching hires has increased significantly.

Does the rule work?

In the 19 years since the Rooney Rule was put in place, 20 black or minority coaches have been named to head coaching positions. Of those 20, six of them have been given only one season (or less) at the helm. Only Terry Robiskie and Perry Fewell received multiple one-year stints.

The NFL has recently seen a trend towards hiring former offensive coordinators to fill head coach openings. As these positions are filled almost exclusively by white candidates, the Rooney Rule has fallen under heavy criticism. Critics contend that teams interview minority candidates not to give them a shot but to fulfill the rule’s requirement.

The future of the Rooney Rule

To some, including NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, it’s clear that the Rooney Rule needs an overhaul.

In recent seasons, there has been an effort to incentivize teams to hire minority candidates. Not only to head coaching positions but coordinator positions as well. In May, the NFL diversity policy expanded the requirements to include two interviews with minority candidates for head coaching positions and one such interview for coordinators. Some proposals have even tied selections in the NFL Draft to the hiring process.

The history behind the Rooney Rule

The NFL has a long, storied tradition. The league is more than 100 years old and has become arguably the most popular sport in America. Unfortunately, the NFL also has a long history of passing over minority candidates for high-ranking positions.

Fritz Pollard was one of the NFL’s first superstar players. Pollard, along with Bobby Marshall, broke the NFL’s color barrier in 1920. Again, he would break through the color barrier, becoming the league’s first black head coach in 1921. There, he served as a player/coach for the Akron Pros. Pollard would go on to serve as a player and coach in the league until 1926.

Al Davis’ Raiders steer progress pre-Rooney Rule

The NFL would not see another minority head coach for more than 50 years.

Tom Flores became the second, taking over for John Madden with the Raiders in 1979. There would not be another black head coach in the NFL until even later. After Pollard, it would not be until 1989 that another black man served as head coach. Art Shell became the second when he was named head coach for — again — the Raiders.

Since Shell’s hiring, several black candidates have achieved the ranks of head coach. Many of them served for many years as coordinators before getting a chance at the top of the ladder. In 2002, two of the league’s most prominent head coaches, Tony Dungy and Dennis Green, were fired. Both coaches had just had winning seasons with their respective teams.

It was this environment that led to the adoption of the Rooney Rule.