Corporate America Copied the NFL's "Rooney Rule"—But Also its Lack of EnforcementBreaking News
tags: sports, affirmative action, football, diversity
In 2020, as protests raged after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, corporate leaders scrambled to show that they, too, were on the side of racial equity.
Video game company Activision Blizzard told players on a loading screen that the Call of Duty series and developer Infinity Ward “stand for equality and inclusion.” JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon took a knee with bank employees. Hundreds of brands posted black squares on Instagram.
And companies across the country flocked to a diversity salve known to be handy during a public relations crisis: the Rooney Rule.
The rule, named for a revered Pittsburgh Steelers owner, had been adopted by the NFL 17 years earlier in response to an outcry — and a legal threat — over the glaring dearth of Black head coaches in a league where nearly 70 percent of the players were Black.
The rule required teams to interview at least one minority candidate for every head coach opening. Billed as brilliant in its simplicity, it quickly became popular with corporate America, a trend that culminated shortly after Floyd’s death.
But even as the Rooney Rule was endorsed by some of the most powerful entities in the country, from President Barack Obama to the nation’s biggest banks to the New York Police Department, the NFL appeared to be coming to terms with an uncomfortable reality.
The Rooney Rule had failed.
After apparent success initially, including a Super Bowl matching two Black head coaches and a 2011 season with seven Black men at the helm, racial equity on football sidelines has plunged, with once-encouraging news about the NFL’s diversity revival giving way to a bleakly repetitive news cycle: Black coaches are fired, qualified Black candidates are passed over, and teams are accused of gaming the interview requirement with no fear of consequences.
NFL officials have repeatedly distanced themselves from those failures by pointing out that the league has no control over its teams’ hiring decisions. That shifts the onus to team owners, the predominantly White and male financial titans who tend to exert fierce control over their corporate fiefdoms.
But an investigation by The Washington Post of the rule’s origins and spread — including interviews with insiders to its history and corporate diversity experts, as well as a review of previously unreported documents — suggests the league for years did too little to exert the influence it did have over its 32 teams. Instead, it clung to a policy that repeatedly proved fallible.