Insights and Impact

3 Minutes On the Rooney Rule 

N. Jeremi Duru, WCL professor and author of Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL, explains why the league has fumbled its diversity hiring responsibilities

WCL professor N. Jeremi Duru

On February 1, former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, who is Black, sued the National Football League and its member clubs, alleging racial discrimination. The class action lawsuit came less than a month after his surprise firing by the Dolphins, whom Flores led to the club’s first back-to-back winning seasons in two decades. 

Now the linebackers coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers, he alleges double standards when it comes to coaching opportunity. For instance, he notes in his complaint that the average White NFL head coach’s tenure is three and a half years, and for a Black coach, it’s two and a half years. Even after a winning season, a Black coach faces a 25 percent risk of termination, compared to 6 percent for a White coach. Flores also alleges that three clubs—the Dolphins, Denver Broncos, and New York Giants—discriminated against him specifically. 

The Rooney Rule was developed in 2003 to create the equal opportunity that Flores alleges has eluded him. The previous year, two civil rights lawyers, Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie Cochran, had threatened to sue the NFL for racial discrimination after a hiring cycle that left just one head coach of color across 32 NFL teams. Negotiations followed, and all the league’s clubs ultimately agreed to interview at least one candidate of color for all head coaching vacancies. The agreement came to be called the Rooney Rule in honor of Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who was a strong advocate for the initiative. The rule has since expanded to require that at least two candidates of color be interviewed; it also applies to searches for general managers and offensive, defensive, and special teams coordinators. And in March, the NFL announced that all teams must hire a diverse offensive assistant coach for the 2022 season and added women to the language of the rule at all levels. 

Initially, the rule proved effective, leading to multifold increases in the number of head coaches and general managers of color in the league. As time has passed, however, clubs have lagged in their implementation of the rule, often engaging in sham or superficial interviews, frustrating many in the NFL’s community of color, Flores among them. 

The Rooney Rule is conceptually sound and, when properly implemented, creates the foundation for increased diversity in any organization. Employment discrimination statutes, however, exist to ensure equal opportunity when extralegal equal opportunity initiatives, such as the Rooney Rule, fail. These include Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes it unlawful to discriminate against someone on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, or religion, as well as Section 1981, a post–Civil War statute that prevents employment discrimination. And nearly every state provides similar protections.

Flores, who is taking a courageous step that presents a great risk to his coaching career, uses New York and New Jersey antidiscrimination statutes and Section 1981 to allege discrimination in the league and seek programmatic relief to increase diversity among league decision makers and ownership groups. A win for Flores—or a settlement—could precipitate substantial progress in the battle to level the playing field in the NFL.

A properly implemented and enforced Rooney Rule could do the same. But there must be other arrows in the quiver. Racial discrimination in sports is a stubborn foe, and consistent multi-pronged efforts are necessary to defeat it. 

Sports is not only big business, it’s important to the fabric of our society. If IBM names a new CEO, few beyond those in the industry pay attention. But if the Steelers or Dallas Cowboys hire a new head coach, it’s headline news. An institution that visible—one that sits on a pedestal that projects to the rest of society—should have fair hiring processes and reflect the best of what we are when it comes to equal opportunity.  

The Rooney Rule at a glance:

  • During the 2021–22 season, there were only two Black offensive coordinators, often the final step before a head coaching job.
  • Super Bowl–winning offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who is Black, has interviewed with 14 teams since 2019.
  • Brian Flores had a .490 win percentage in three seasons with the Dolphins.
  • Throughout the history of the NFL, 108 of 110 owners with controlling interest have been White. 
  • A century after the NFL's founding, the Commanders' Jason Wright became its first Black franchise president.
  • There are now seven Black general managers in the NFL, a record high.