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What Is The 'Rooney Rule' In the NFL?

Dan Rooney, Pittsburgh Steelers Executive from 1969 to 2016. Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.
Dan Rooney, Pittsburgh Steelers Executive from 1969 to 2016. Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.
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Modified 26 Feb 2021
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The "Rooney Rule", established in 2003, is the brainchild of the legendary owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dan Rooney. During his time in the league, Rooney had been a trailblazer at helping the NFL incorporate diversity at every level. He was the main proponent of the "Rooney Rule", the policy of coaching diversity that the league had tried to institute for several years prior to 2003. This policy requires each NFL team with a head coach vacancy to interview at least one candidate of a minority ethnicity before filling the open position.


The history of NFL coaching diversity

There was only one head coach of color in NFL history before 1960 - Fritz Pollard, a coach in the 1920s. The next head coach from a minority ethnicity would be recent Hall of Fame selection, Tom Flores, who is of a Hispanic background. Only five more minority coaches would have top jobs until the "Rooney Rule" was instituted in 2003. There have been plenty of minority assistants and coordinators, but not many head coaches of color.

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What compelled Rooney to act?

Having been involved with his team's business from the late 1960s to 2016, Dan Rooney saw little to no progress in diversity among the league's head coaches. By the turn of the century, the league was long overdue a change.

2002, shortly before the inception of the "Rooney Rule", two black head coaches had been fired - one of whom was Tony Dungy - after a few rare mistakes. He was let go by the Buccaneers after finishing the 2001 season with a winning record.

History had shown that white head coaches were given far more opportunities to fail at their jobs before being shown the door. Noticeably, these coaches also gained new opportunities elsewhere rather quickly compared to minority coaches.

The push for more diverse representation among NFL coaches was the highest it had ever been at this point. The league's commitment towards diversity was questioned. Prominent civil rights lawyers and experts showed how African-American coaches, were more likely to be fired, and less likely to be hired than their white counterparts. The league desperately needed the "Rooney Rule".

In 2002, the NFL started the league's Diversity Committee in an effort to provide for a more diverse workplace, throughout the league. The committee was chaired by Dan Rooney, who quickly put into action a concept that would influence teams to consider all available and qualified candidates going forward. This would be formally known as the "Rooney Rule".


How effective has the 'Rooney Rule' been?

Some might argue that the "Rooney Rule" isn't contributing enough towards the overall diversity that the NFL can and should provide. Rooney's concept is often accused of being another form of "Affirmative Action", despite the rule only requiring an interview quota and NOT a hiring mandate.

Many believe that the "Rooney Rule" isn't enough and that the league is still failing to diversify the head coaching position. Currently, there are only three minority head coaches employed in the NFL. Since 2003, there have been 21 people from minority ethnicities hired to head coaching jobs, the most notable of whom is the current Head Coach of the Steelers, Mike Tomlin. Coincidentally, Rooney was the one who hired Mike Tomlin in 2007.

Also read: NFL Trade Rumors: three Pittsburgh Steelers who could be traded for draft capital


Rooney's efforts have influenced other sports

The "Rooney Rule" has influenced other sports as well. In soccer, the Professional Footballers' Association, or PFA, have taken notice of their lack of coaching diversity in recent years. At one point, association soccer had only two black managers, out of 92.

College sports institutions have also taken a page out of Rooney's playbook, creating initiatives like the "Russell Rule" for example, after the legendary basketball player and civil rights activist Bill Russell. This rule requires college institutions to include a member of an under-represented community in a pool of candidates for major positions within a school's athletics department.


Dan Rooney was General Manager (1969-70), President (1975-2002) and Owner (1988-2016) of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.

Published 25 Feb 2021
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