Is the Rooney Rule Ripe for Dismissal?

via The Guardian

Elpalito kindly called my attention to an article published at Baltimore Beatdown, the Ravens’ SB Nation site. Titled Rooney Rule needs to go away for good, you can pretty much guess the author’s stance. But why? Surely it is a good thing that something is in place to assure all worthy candidates are interviewed for a job, whether they fit the usual “profile” or not.

The reason the author brings it up at this time is, I assume, because of Roger Goodell’s stated intention of extending the rule to cover women candidates for front office jobs. But I’ll let the author (Wola Odeniran) speak for himself.

This rule is basically in place to make sure that owners (not all of them but a decent amount) around the league are doing their due diligence in looking outside of a certain race or gender. That is a problem.

So in other words, the rule is in place to make sure that owners around the league are not bigots.  Again I ask, if you want the best person for the job, shouldn’t you be looking for the right candidate genuinely? Do you really need a rule to force you to look at women and minorities? No you shouldn’t if you are a decent human being.

But the NFL seems to be proud that the Rooney Rule is in place. It doesn’t do much for minorities and it won’t do much for women in the long run either. This rule is a token rule.

The reason why the Rooney Rule is  a token rule is because there have been  a lot of minorities who have taken interviews in the past just because NFL teams are forced to comply by the rule. Why should you interview someone you have no intention of hiring in the first place? Oh, but the supporters of the rule believe it gives minorities a chance to be noticed. Well, that’s the wrong way of going about it.

When minorities take interviews for a job they know they are not going to be hired for, it is a serious problem. And it is a problem that keeps happening mostly because NFL teams are noticing them taking interviews. Think about it.

For example, when NFL teams continue to notice the same minorities are getting interviews and are not getting hired for those positions, it is a problem for those candidates because there will be questions about why they are not being hired in the first place. And then from there, those minorities will be ignored. So how good does the Rooney Rule look after that? All of those token interviews amounted to nothing.

In theory I completely agree. Sort out who you think are the best candidates, interview them, and hire the best one. There is only one problem with this theory—human beings make decisions based upon unexamined bias and assumptions which are often completely opaque to them.

Study after study has shown that people, consciously or unconsciously, want to hire people who look like them. If you are a slightly balding, overweight white man, you are naturally going to warm to a slightly balding, portly white man, because his appearance reassures you that he shares ideas, feelings and values with you. This is, of course, absurd, but so are many of our unconscious bias and assumptions.

You can find a bazillion articles on the subject.  Here’s an excerpt from one, titled How ‘unconscious bias’ could stand in the way of your promotion, from The Globe and Mail:

We’re all biased one way or another, and often we don’t even realize it. In 1995, a pair of psychologists, Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji, defined the term “implicit stereotype,” to describe how we unconsciously attach characteristics to people from a certain social group, using random bits of acquired information, influenced by our culture, upbringing and previous experience. This creates a bias – even one we might consciously and overtly reject. These “mind bugs,” as Banaji and Greenwald put it in their recent book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, may reveal themselves in subtle microbehaviour, such as avoiding eye contact during a handshake with someone from a different race. Yet of the thousands of people who have taken the Implicit Association Test, [IAT] an online word game created by Banaji and Greenwald to test the prevalence of stereotypes in areas such as race, appearance and gender, roughly 80 per cent revealed a bias.

There are various theories out there as to why this is. But you ignore it at your peril.

Malcolm Gladwell reports, in his book “Blink”, that after taking the Race IAT test he was mortified to discover he has a “moderate automatic preference for whites.” Considering he’s half black, that seemed unfortunate. As he said:

So what does this mean? Does this mean I’m a racist, a self-hating black person? Not exactly. What it means is that our attitudes toward things like race or gender operate on two levels. First of all, we have our conscious attitudes. This is what we choose to believe….

But the IAT measures something else. It measures our second level of attitude, our racial attitude on an unconscious level—the immediate, automatic associations that tumble out before we’ve even had time to think. We don’t deliberately choose our unconscious attitudes…we may not even be aware of them.

The disturbing thing about the test is that it shows that our unconscious attitudes may be utterly incompatible with our stated conscious values. As it turns out, for example, of the fifty thousand African Americans who have taken the Race IAT so far, about half of them, like me, have stronger associations with whites than with blacks.

If you want to take the test yourself, you can do so here.

So I would answer the very passionate young man who wrote the Baltimore Beatdown article by saying that in most cases, at least, what the Rooney Rule is attempting to do is to widen the candidate pool to those outside of the group of the obvious candidates. As to whether it hurts the chances of a candidate to interview unsuccessfully, I couldn’t say. But Ron Rivera had at least nine interviews for a head coaching position before landing the Carolina Panthers job. He’s done okay for himself there. Would he have been just as good had he landed one of those earlier jobs, or had he learned things in the interim which made him a more attractive candidate and served him well when he went to Carolina? Again, impossible to say. But it seems fair to say that having multiple unsuccessful interviews didn’t prevent him eventually finding a berth.

And lest we forget, one of those interviews was with the Steelers, which would have fulfilled their Rooney Rule requirement, assuming that’s why they interviewed him. Which, if their past history and present head coach is anything to go by, it wasn’t.

But even if Mr. Odeniran is correct, it’s hard for me to see a better way to assure that “the best candidates” get a look. It may not be enough to overcome the unconscious biases of the team ownership, but at least there’s a chance.

I’ll give an illustration from my world—classical music. For years orchestras were dominated by male players (and yes, they were mostly white as well.) Here is the abstract of a paper written by Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse for the National Bureau of Economic Research. You can read the whole paper here.

Discrimination against women has been alleged in hiring practices for many occupations, but it is extremely difficult to demonstrate sex-biased hiring. A change in the way symphony orchestras recruit musicians provides an unusual way to test for sex-biased hiring. To overcome possible biases in hiring, most orchestras revised their audition policies in the 1970s and 1980s. A major change involved the use of “blind” auditions with a “screen” to conceal the identity of the candidate from the jury. Female musicians in the top five symphony orchestras in the United States were less than 5% of all players in 1970 but are 25% today.  We ask whether women were more likely to be advanced and/or hired with the use of “blind” auditions. Using data from actual auditions in an individual fixed-effects framework, we find that the screen increases—by 50%—the probability a woman will be advanced out of certain preliminary rounds. The screen also enhances, by severalfold, the likelihood a female contestant will be the winner in the final round. Using data on orchestra personnel, the switch to “blind” auditions can explain between 30% and 55% of the increase in the proportion female among new hires and between 25% and 46% of the increase in the percentage female in the orchestras since 1970.

This paper was written in 1997. While looking for updated figures for the proportion of women musicians I came across this 2014 article from the St. Louis Dispatch:

Think back to the symphony orchestra of yesteryear, as seen in Disney’s 1940 film “Fantasia”: all male, but for two female harpists.

Now take a good look at the orchestra of today: In the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, women players outnumber the men. The numbers were 50-50 in 2011-12; women outnumbered men for the first time in 2012-13, with 46 women out of 97 musicians; and this season the breakdown is 45 men and 51 women.

Things have changed at orchestras all over the country, if not always to the extent found here.

The article did note that the New York Philharmonic, long a bastion of maleness, is now 44% female. The author believes that the changes stem both from the audition procedure and the change in societal attitudes. Obviously the latter is at least to some extent correct. The article notes that famed conductor Zubin Mehta, after hearing a female trumpeter’s audition, “told the committee he was not going to have a woman in the brass section.”

But this still doesn’t change our unconscious attitudes. We’re all accustomed to seeing women in orchestras now (or at least those of us who go to orchestra concerts,) but how many women are employed in any sort of executive capacity in the NFL? There are some, but they are definitely exceptions.

Screened interviews are not really something that could be done in the case of NFL hires, unless the entire process were to change. The number of candidates for a typical orchestra job is in the hundreds, and they request an audition. I’ve never heard of an NFL team opening up a head coaching position to any and all applicants, nor would it make sense.

The Rooney Rule might not be perfect, but it seems to me it is unfortunately necessary.

The picture which heads the article is from The Guardian (UK), in an article which discusses a modification of the Rooney Rule to be put in place for UK football (soccer) clubs.



  • Wow….I remember leaving a comment on that article and it wasn’t included….sniffles.

    I am a fan of and active member at Beatdown, a good place for football conversations without some of the things people have complained about at BTSC. Not that I necessarily agree with the them.

    If I remember my comment it is that perhaps and only perhaps, the Rooney Rule is outdated and hasn’t kept up with the times. I do appreciate your opinion. Maybe an update of some kind is due.

    Go Steelers!


    • To tell you the truth, I didn’t even read the comments. Elpalito directed me to the article, I read it, and wrote my reply. I didn’t read the comments because I was (subconsciously) convinced that they would all be made by ignorant Ravens fans. (Just kidding—I hope…)


  • My arguments then will still stand. How is it outdated, Fever? All the rule requires is that an interview is conducted. The times have not changed that much since the Rule was put in place. Most of the same owners are in place. Heck, most of the same coaching candidates are still being recycled every year.
    I never understood Woda’s argument that the rule should be abolished because owners should simply just be smart enough to be inclusive in their hiring. The owners aren’t smart enough to be inclusive, hence the rule is in place. The truth is most jobs in an NFL organization have nothing to do with Xs and Os. There is no reason why women candidates shouldn’t be interviewed for jobs. Do you need to have experience in college football…or testicles, for that matter, to understand how to run the merchandising department? Of course not. But you wouldn’t know it from current hiring practices.
    Or perhaps it comes down to that IAT topic. White male owners want to hire white male coaches and white male staffers.


  • I have heard some say that the rule needs to be extended to front office jobs and coordinators as well to truly be truly effective. If the rule is to remain, I have to agree with this. I also fall into the group of people that feel many candidates get interviews just to meet the spirit of the rule.


    • Didn’t mean to double up on truly. Also meant to say letter of the rule instead of spirit. Hey momma….we need an edit tool. :)


    • I’m sure that some do get an interview just to meet the quota… but that interview is still legit. The GMs aren’t just going to ask a candidate to sit for half an hour and then leave.
      Ron Rivera had to go through a few token interviews…token in that he had 0 shot at the job. BUT, it also gave him valuable experience in interviewing for a head coaching job. That kind of experience is invaluable — you practice, you get feedback, you adjust how you present yourself, etc.


      • Agree that the experience is valuable for the reasons you listed. Still think the rule needs to be expanded if it is to remain.


  • Pingback: More on the Rooney Rule, from Ivan Cole | Going Deep:

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