More on the Rooney Rule, from Ivan Cole

via USA Today It’s good to have a parent in the business…

I decided to exercise my editorial privileges and remove a comment left by Ivan Cole in yesterday’s post, Is the Rooney Rule Ripe for Dismissal? It was more than worthy to be its own article, and here it is. He begins:

All the preceding arguments are interesting and valid, but I believe there is an important part missing here.

Some of the “arguments” Ivan refers to are presumably those made in the article, but were also in a comment by Elpalito, referring back to his original comments to the Baltimore Beatdown article. Here they are, edited for length:

The [Rooney] rule was put in place because very good minority applicants weren’t even getting a sniff at an interview. In a sport dominated by players of color, it is odd that you can count the minority head coaches on one hand.

You [Baltimore Beatdown writer Wola Odeniran] are absolutely right though, the best person SHOULD be the one hired. But how do you know who the best person is when you refuse to interview a specific subset of experienced individuals? The Rooney Rule only requires an interview…an opportunity, a chance to show an owner that you can do the job… because whether you want to accept it or not, the truth is that plenty of the old, elitist owners aren’t so inclined to hire someone of color.
Good owners don’t need this rule. There are, however, surprisingly few good owners in the NFL.

This expansion into hiring more women? Like you, I care more about the best person being hired. But if no women are ever granted an interview…how would you know?

…[J]ob interviews are tough. If a minority candidate can’t get any interviews, how can he even practice? A person’s opportunity to interview shouldn’t only come up when the Steelers have an opening. Getting an interview is not a guarantee of a job offer — it is only the guarantee of a chance.


Ivan continues:

For years I worked in the area of career development and placement. It was understood that there existed two job market tracks—one merit-based (so-called), the other relational. Each has its assets and flaws, though people are more likely to laud the merit system and look askance at the relational one.

In theory the merit system acts on the idea that you hire the most qualified person for the job. The problem is, how do you define “qualified”? And just as important, how do you distinguish among multiple applicants who meet the qualifications? The temptation is often (borrowing a research design term) to treat qualifications as a continuous variable when often they are not.

For example, a job task requires the ability to lift 25 pounds. Both James Harrison and Chris Boswell qualify. In fact, every member of the team qualifies. Is Harrison more qualified in this instance because he can hoist more weight? If the maximum weight involved in the task is 25 pounds, then the answer is no.

But now you are left with a problem. Short of flipping a coin, how do you go about selecting someone? One response is, you inflate the qualifications. Make the qualifying weight 250 pounds and you have a solution. Or demand higher test scores and grades for admission into a highly selective college even though the standard for successful matriculation is a lot lower. But it does have the advantage of winnowing the field of prospective applicants.

Which would be fine if you could avoid the cases of the exaggeration of credentials, if not outright fraud in such cases. You also incur tremendous costs in the time and money it takes to craft a process that would be fair, at least in theory, to all eligible applicants.

The relational system, which accounts for nearly half of all hiring currently is, as the term implies, based upon relationships as a referral and recruitment system. Three key advantages are:

  1. much greater efficiency in identifying genuinely qualified applicants,
  2. more reliable vetting of said applicants via the relationships that brought them to the attention of the employer, and
  3. a standard of defining qualifications (discrete as opposed to a continuous variable) that is more realistic and workable. That is, to say an applicant is qualified or not, as opposed to ‘more’ or ‘less’ qualified, which is often nonsensical.

On the other hand, this system is clearly biased in favor of those who are in a network of relationships, as well as how a workplace culture has been normalized. After establishing fundamental qualifications, often the determining factor with a hire or admission is the concept of ‘fit’, how well an individual integrates into the community. So if a workplace or other entity has been ‘normed’ around the persons and perspectives of a particular gender, ethnic group, school affiliation, political or religious orientation then it will be an uphill struggle for anyone who is otherwise qualified, but is an ‘outsider’. In fact, in a very real sense these characteristics become de facto job qualifications.

Social segregation becomes a very real impediment for outsider groups trying to get consideration through these types of systems. One is not necessarily being a bigot when he or she says that they would consider a minority or woman applicant if they only knew of any. If one depends on drawing their pool of applicants from networks, be they churches, schools, communities of any kind that exclude or marginalize certain categories of people, then no willful act of discrimination is necessary.

So-called affirmative action efforts, of which the Rooney Rule is one, are designed to attempt to mitigate the problem by recognizing that a system of exclusion has an inertia that continues unless you are intentional in halting the momentum and changing direction. The author of the Beatdown article exposes a misunderstanding of what is intended by focusing upon qualifications and merit when the true focus is upon relationships and access. Affirmative action has not been primarily about sabotaging the merit process, but expanding the relational process.

And if you have any doubts, let me assure you that the NFL is an extreme relational system. When was the last time you saw a head coaching or general manager vacancy in the classifieds? Bill Nunn complained about the tide of nepotism (a corrupt byproduct of the relational process) in the league. Todd Haley, Mike Shula, Kyle Shanahan—the league is full of the offspring of insiders occupying plum positions. Some are highly qualified, some are not. The Rooney Rule operates on this simple assumption—if you sincerely want to diversify a system that has been normed on being closed, an intentional effort is going to have to be made. Otherwise you will just get what you have always gotten.

Want proof? Some have criticized Obama for getting into Harvard Law School on affirmative action, forgetting the fact that his father attended Harvard, which would make him a legacy. No different from the previous occupant of the White House.

The idea that multiple failed interviews is a negative reveals the lack of understanding of the Beatdown author as to how these processes often work. Few coaching applicants of any stripe are successful in all their interviews. It is all part of building relationships. Tony Dungy, who was a disciple of Chuck Noll, didn’t get a head coaching job right away. His disciple, Mike Tomlin, had a smoother path and has come full circle to an extent.

This is the intent. Once you build the relationships, the inertia of the system works in favor of diversity instead of against it. But the initial interventions are absolutely necessary in order to change the culture.

This is what a lot of critics just don’t get, and others don’t want to get. Solutions don’t come simply by ceasing to behave in a particular way. Institutions and communities are shaped and normalized by past practices.

Transformation is like trying to stop the momentum of a freight train or an aircraft carrier. It’s not going to stop on a dime nor change direction quickly or on the basis of good wishes alone. This is common sense. But then common sense seems to go out the window when it comes to things like this. 

Most likely the reason Dan Rooney has been in the lead with this effort is that his family and the Steeler franchise has been struggling with various aspects of this problem since they became part of the league in the 1930s. Some of the biggest steps  were taken with the addition of Chuck Noll and Nunn nearly fifty years ago, which is just about right. Change of this nature, without being catastrophically disruptive, takes years at least, and more likely decades, and sometimes generations. If you are simplistic, impatient or naïve you aren’t likely to get it.


  • Some years ago I was on a search committee for a management job, the nature of which I won’t specify. In one of our early meetings we were each given a stack of the job applications which had come in after the job was posted, and were asked to read them, make a quick summary, and present them to the committee at the next meeting.

    One of the committee members, an old hand at such things, took his stack of applications and said he realized we had to go through that process, but in fact we would undoubtedly be hiring someone else than anyone in the large stacks of applicants, because the people who submitted such applications were looking to move up. We were looking for someone who wanted, at worst, to make a lateral move, and preferably one who would accept something of a downward move, because, say, said person’s spouse wanted to move and Pittsburgh was fine with them.

    He said he had no idea who that person was, but we should all think about people we knew, at any level, who would be a good candidate for us, and start asking if they were interested. He said that in nine cases out of ten the answer would be “no,” but that you never knew. In fact, I don’t believe we eventually interviewed ANY of the people from the applications we had so lovingly gone through. And we did actually find someone who was wanting to move and whom many would have said was taking a step down. Certainly he came from a more prestigious institution, but he had just lost a promotion to another colleague and wanted to leave.

    And, for that matter, my husband is (and consequently I am) in Pittsburgh not because he applied for a job but because he was contacted by someone. He had received such queries for years, but we had no reason to want to leave until something occurred earlier that year to make us ready to move on.

    So I guess I knew all this, Ivan, but had never thought of it this way. That’s why you’re such a genius : )


    • That’s an interesting world view. I would WANT to hire someone looking to move up. Why hire stagnation?

      As a former career advisor, I will say that the best opportunities never come up when you NEED a job, they usually come up when you don’t. You just have to have the chutzpah to take the chance. Which is why I start a new job in a week. lol


      • In this particular case, it was because of public perception of the institution. It was a sort of cusp/second tier institution in the public view, and the idea was that this would increase its prestige. Which it did, actually.


  • The funniest thing, to me, about the Beatdown comments is that the author refused to respond to me. He only responded to Baltimore fans.


  • One of the great ironies of the Rooney Rule is that no one could have used it better – or needed it more – than our beloved founder, the Chief. He was loyal to a fault – a serious fault – to his friends. He hired and rehired his great friend Walt Kiesling, who had a terrible record and was as stubborn as a mule. There wasn’t a racist bone in Mr. Rooney’s body – in fact the way he cared for a terribly injured Lowell Perry (whom he hired as an Assistant Coach) – is enough alone to put him up for sainthood. But he was loyal to his friends and hired his friends when they needed jobs. So his circle of applicants to be considered was somewhat closed. It really helped if you knew him personally and/or came from the North Side, Duquesne University, or St Bonaventure.

    I guess that’s human nature. We all want to hire people we already know and like.

    One other thing about the Rooney Rule and job interviews: you can hit a home run in your job interview and still not get the job. We all understand that. But the job interviewer(s) won’t suddenly develop amnesia. If you wow them, they will remember, and there will be other opportunities down the road.

    Never stop looking for your next job (unless you are a Steeler assistant coach). Widen your network of friends and associations, and your opportunities will increase exponentially.

    Homer first worked for ABC Sports as a stringer in 1972. He was hired full-time by ABC News in 1978. The people for whom he first worked in 1972 didn’t think he was ready for a full-time network gig at that time. But he stayed in touch with them while working at local affiliates – and they helped open the door six years later for a full-time job that lasted 31 years.

    What the Rooney Rule does best of all is that it widens the network of friends and associates for those minority candidates seeking jobs, and allows wise executives to meet and take the measure of future Tony Dungys and Mike Tomlins. Of course, there will be some foolish execs who go through sham interviews, but the vast majority should see it as an opportunity to go scouting through other teams’ young and promising assistant coaches – and college coaches – as a way to better their own teams.

    It widens networks for minority applicants while putting them prominently on the radars of other teams. That’s reason enough to keep it in effect.


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