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Should football adopt the Rooney Rule?

September 11, 2011 Leave a comment

“The Rooney Rule is doing a good job. It’s a nice process, but it does not necessarily mean a commitment to diversity. I think there’s a difference. Right now this is working, but there’s still some pitfalls”

There has been a clamour from various parties this week, including PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor, to install a ‘Rooney Rule’ into football, requiring clubs to interview ethnic minority candidates for vacant managerial positions.

The Rooney Rule was devised in the NFL in 2003 by Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney after pressure from various groups for franchises to address the small number of minority head coaches.

Smith and Dungy at Super Bowl XLIV

It has been painted this week as a failsafe method. Yes, there are more minority head coaches in the NFL now (Lovie Smith, Mike Tomlin, Jim Caldwell, Ron Rivera, Leslie Frazier, Marvin Lewis, Raheem Morris and Hue Jackson) when there were just two at the time of the rule’s implementation. They have also proved their worth (three of those eight head coaches have reached Super Bowls and five of the last 10 participants in the Super Bowl were coached by minority head coaches). But the truth is that the rule does have its drawbacks.

Take for example the only time a team has ever been fined for flaunting the rule.

In 2003, the Detroit Lions were fined $200,000 by the NFL for not complying with the Rooney Rule after the league accused them of hiring Steve Mariucci without interviewing any minority candidates. The Lions stressed that five potential minority candidates refused to be interviewed, citing that Mariucci’s hiring was a foregone conclusion.

The Lions had settled on their man but were bound by the rule to go through the motions of interviewing a minority candidate. As Brian W Collins (an author who actually concludes that the Rooney Rule is a positive thing) points out in the New York University Law Review:

“In forcing teams that have essentially already selected their new head coaches to conduct these interviews, the NFL seems to support – and perhaps mandate – the demeaning phenomenon of tokenism. Instead of being taken seriously, these token candidates are ‘likely to become future pawns, cast out in front of the media as legitimate possibilities’ when in reality they are merely ‘compliance candidates’.”  

Since Collins’ article was published, Leslie Frazier may well have fulfilled the role of ‘pawn’ and ‘compliance candidate’ which he alluded to. Frazier, who was given the Minnesota Vikings head coaching role last year, went to interview for vacant positions at the Rams, Broncos, Lions, Dolphins, Falcons and Seahawks. The latter was accused of simply placating the league as they’d already made their mind up on USC coach Pete Carroll.

Tony Dungy, the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl, believed that the Rooney Rule gave Frazier opportunities to interview for positions he would perhaps not have had.

“Even in cases where you don’t get the job, I know Leslie interviewed with the Dolphins and know Bill Parcells came away impressed and told other people how impressed he was, and he is a sharp guy and that helps.”

That in itself cannot be disputed. It is probably unlikely that pre-Rooney Rule Frazier would have had seven interviews for heading coaching jobs.

But why was Frazier turned down for six positions? Was it because he was not good enough or was it because the franchises were made to interview a minority candidate? Only time will tell if Frazier turns out to be an elite head coach but it is worrying he was interviewed six times before getting a big break, and that was with the franchise which knew him well and needed a quick fix (he was defensive co-ordinator in Minnesota and was hired midway through last season, initially on a caretaker style basis).

It may be that the six franchises didn’t think Frazier was good enough to be a head coach. But it may be that they had decided upon whom they were going to hire and that Frazier was merely interviewing so they could fit the criteria with regards to the Rooney Rule. If it is the latter, that is simply not fair on the candidate.

There is no question that the current situation, with only two black league managers from the 92 league clubs (Chris Hughton and Chris Powell), is not representative of today’s game (with more than 25% of players in the league being black).

But to look at the Rooney Rule as though it is the definitive answer is wrong. Does somebody like Paul Ince really want to travel up and down the country to every possible managerial vacancy in the top three tiers of English football just to appease formalities?

“That is not what the Rooney Rule is supposed to be, (that) you make up your mind and then interview a candidate for it anyway just to satisfy the rule,” said Dungy.

But that situation seems unavoidable in certain instances. Take Glasgow Rangers for example where Ally McCoist had long been groomed as the successor to Walter Smith. If the Rooney Rule was implemented then a minority candidate would have had to interview for the position this summer when Smith retired, despite the fact that McCoist would have been virtually assured of the position.

Perhaps such problems are inescapable and they may be necessary evils if it gets more minority candidates managerial positions.

The idea is to change the culture, for boardrooms to entertain the idea of hiring minority candidates, something which sadly they seem to have avoided thus far. There needs to be a spark from somewhere for that to happen and perhaps the Rooney Rule would kick-start it. But the idea is far from perfect and it does have its drawbacks.

You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn

 

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