The Rooney Rule: How the NFL let down Brian Flores and people of color in America’s largest arena

An ethical analysis of affirmative action in the National Football League

by Finn Wendt

Photo courtesy of Adrian Curiel via Unsplash

Overview

The National Football League faced a big problem in 2002, one similar to many cases across corporate America. The league was handed a report from two civil rights lawyers, Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie Cochran, which thoroughly crunched the numbers and showed that historically, Black head coaches in the NFL were the least likely to get hired and most likely to get fired, despite boasting some of the best success rates among coaches (The Daily).

Mehri had previously busted the glass ceiling that Black white-collar workers faced at Coca-Cola and Texaco via successful lawsuits. Faced with the facts and noting this precedent, the league sent out the report to all the team owners (The Daily). This is where Dan Rooney gets involved.

Rooney was the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and an activist. After reading the report, he spearheaded the effort to make the NFL more equitable. The report offered three solutions, but one was much more marketable to other owners: when seeking a new head coach, teams must interview at least one non-white candidate (Cochran).

The owners voted in favor of the policy and the Rooney Rule was born.

The rule’s teeth were tested shortly after its establishment when the Detroit Lions organization was found to have not interviewed a single non-white candidate to fill its head coaching vacancy. The NFL stuck to their guns and fined the team’s president $200,000.

More and more people of color were hired year after year, and history was made when two Black head coaches in Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith faced off in Superbowl XLI. After 2003 when the rule was put into action, non-white candidates for head coach positions were up to 21% more likely to get the job (DuBois 210).

DuBois believes that the most likely driver of the increase is that despite whatever implicit or preconceived bias a front office may have, by being forced to interview a person of color they mentally overcome that bias by realizing the candidate’s capability (210). However, there are currently only three head coaches of color in the league- that’s the same number as the year the Rooney Rule was established.

While federal affirmative action policies stemming from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 increased diversity and equity within the workforce, little had been done to make a change at the executive level until the advent of the Rooney Rule (DuBois 211).

The policy’s “soft affirmative action,” meaning that there are no quotas to fill, made it more palatable to owners and other decision-makers since they would not be punished for not selecting a non-white candidate (DuBois 212).

Now, fast forward to 2022. The Miami Dolphins fired their head coach, Brian Flores, who is Black. The reason why is a little muddy and could fill a whole additional paper. But, after his firing, Flores applied to other head coaching vacancies around the league as coaches do. Flores was one of the top candidates available as he had proved his worth, despite being one of the youngest coaches in the NFL, by bringing the Dolphins their first back-to-back winning seasons since the Rooney Rule was established.

Flores landed an interview with the New York Giants. Three days before his interview, he received a text from New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, with whom he had previously coached alongside, congratulating him on getting the job. But it was clear Belichick had texted the wrong ‘Brian’ contact in his phone.

The text was intended for Brian Daboll, a white coach, who had already been interviewed for the position. At this point, it seemed clear that the Bills were not seriously considering Flores for the coaching job and were using him just to check the Rooney Rule box.

On Feb. 1, 2022, Flores filed a class-action lawsuit against the NFL and all 32 of its team for alleged discrimination. Flores became the mouthpiece for coaches who had known they were victims of discrimination in the NFL in the countless years leading up to this lawsuit (Seifert “Brian Flores”).

Civil rights activists such as Reverend Al Sharpton are calling for a better system and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted the league must do better (Franklin; Seifert “Commissioner Roger Goodell”). The question that this paper is discussing is now drawn into focus: to what extent does the NFL’s Rooney Rule pose ethical dilemmas for the league as they navigate affirmative action and increasing equity?

Ethics

To weigh the ethics of the situation, you first have to understand who the stakeholders are and what each of them has to gain or lose.

When Mehri ran the statistics to locate the cause of the glass ceiling that people of color were met with when seeking career advancement at Texaco and Coca-Cola, he found that all you need to do was to follow the money. This was no different in his analysis of the NFL. NFL ownerships are bought and sold like investments. As of 2019, the least valuable NFL team, the Buffalo Bills, was valued at $1.9 billion (Ozanian et al.).

Team owners want their teams to be successful in order to add more value to their organization. It would seem that, as Cochran and Mehri pointed out, they’d want to take a harder look at non-white head coach candidates as they won on average one more game per regular season and took their team to the playoffs 67% of the time, compared to 39% of the time for white coaches. But even more influential than money, based on their actions, is systemic racism.

The average age of all 32 NFL owners is 69, meaning that the bulk of the current ownership group was born before the Civil Rights Act was ratified. These mostly white men bought their organizations with old money during times when it was systemically impossible for people of color to amass the same amount of wealth to secure an equal opportunity. Because of this, they also have the privilege to choose to not put on a veil of ignorance to see the situation from a different perspective.

The owners want to strike a balance between their ideals (either implicit or intentional), maximizing profits and fostering organizational success.

Similarly, you have other investors, whether they are minority owners or sponsors. They want team success, which garners more fans and brings more money in, but they also don’t want their names attached to a problematic organization that would taint their image. In 2014, many sponsors, including Procter & Gamble, backed out of league-wide contracts after the NFL faced public outcry relating to its handling of domestic violence perpetrated by its players.

The weakest stakeholders in this scenario are the non-white coaches. Being a person of color doesn’t indicate a coach will struggle in the NFL. In fact, the opposite is proven true when looking at NFL records (Cochran and Mehri 2). Despite this, as with any job that doesn’t utilize hard affirmative action, whether or not these coaches get hired depends on the people already in charge and the systems they have in place. They are capable and they may even be more fit for the job, but that doesn’t matter unless an owner agrees to hire them.

Cochran and Mehri introduced the report pro bono and executed no legal action, so after the league got the ball rolling on the Rooney Rule, their roles and stakes in the matter pretty much dissolved.

The league has a group called the NFL Workplace Diversity Committee whose job is to monitor the league and suggest changes and policies which increase equity across the board. The committee is headed by Art Rooney II, Dan Rooney’s son. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, they expanded the Rooney Rule:

“Clubs will now be required to interview at least two external minority candidates for head coach vacancies; at least one minority candidate for any of the three coordinator vacancies; and at least one external minority candidate for the senior football operations or general manager position” (NFL).

The committee serves as a moderator between league executives, teams and individuals. One of its intrinsic motivations is to hold every party accountable while opening more opportunities for people of color. However, one limiting factor is that it was created as a “knee jerk” reaction to Cochran and Mehri’s initial report, according to ESPN reporter Len Pasquarelli at the time.

The problem with the Rooney Rule is that, as Flores’ case shows, is that it devolved from its original intent, becoming just a hoop to jump through during the hiring process. After Flores was fired, only three coaches of color remain in the NFL.

One solution would be a shift to hard affirmative action, where teams would be required to employ a set amount of people of color with punishment for those who failed to comply. Comparing this solution to the current system seems like it’s a right vs. right scenario, but it might actually lean a bit more towards right vs. less right.

Hard affirmative action in the short term would immediately increase the presence of people of color in the league, but who knows how it would turn out in the long term. Mehri himself noted that change wouldn’t stick unless it came naturally from within (The Daily). That’s what would make it less right, it would be an insincere change. Also, league owners don’t like to be threatened with punishments, which would be required to enforce hard affirmative action. Cochran and Mehri’s other two suggestions involved forcing teams to forfeit draft picks as punishment for not diversifying executive positions. These solutions were thrown out immediately in conversations throughout the league, which is how the current solution was selected (The Daily).

The Rooney Rule, in comparison, is right in that it employs an earnest effort to bring diversity to the NFL. Unfortunately, as brought to light by Flores, the rule is no longer being executed earnestly. Frankly, this comparison almost looks like a wrong vs. less wrong situation since both solutions are facades of equity. The Rooney Rule is less wrong since it is intended to create natural, long-term change, but still wrong since it is not being executed in good faith. The right solution would be if racism didn’t exist in the NFL, but that’s not reality and it’s why this conversation is being had.

The NFL is an American institution owned and manipulated by generational wealth and power. As the ownership group perpetuates these hiring inequities, looking at outcome-based ethics, where you evaluate if the ends of a solution justify the means and benefit the greater good, an extreme solution would be to clean house and find new owners with modern ideals. This can’t happen because the owners have a legal right to own their teams, but it’s an interesting thought experiment. If the owners were reimbursed for the teams plus their profits, they likely wouldn’t be losing much since they are wealthy. They are the losers here but they don’t really lose. If the NFL could find a way to find new owners, perhaps through blind applications reviewed by the Workplace Diversity Committee, the league could get a fresh modern start. The changes at the coaching level couldn’t happen immediately, because it’d be unfair to fire current white coaches, but over time, as firings and retirements happen naturally, the league could naturally repopulate its executives in a more equitable fashion. We could be living in a utopia if only we could afford to buy out all the world’s archaic decision-makers.

It goes without saying that if it were you qualified for a vacant head coach position, you’d want a fair shot at it. Here, the ethics of virtue and care, where you treat others how you’d want to be treated a la the Golden Rule, offer a great, albeit difficult, solution that links back to soft affirmative action. If the NFL could implement more conversations and training that help owners empathize with candidates of color, similar to how they realized their capabilities when the Rooney Rule got candidates of color in the door which in turn boosted representation, that empathy could drive a natural progression where people of color would be considered for jobs regardless if it’s required to interview them or not.

Up until Flores spoke out, the NFL has been brushing its diversity problem under the rug. The NFL doesn’t have to follow the Society of Professional Journalists guidelines, but they would be ethically sound if they pursued the truth of their problem and reported on it fairly and fully by taking solutions completely into their own hands from within. To their credit, they have acknowledged that they can do better, but it has proven to take prodding, as exemplified by the threat of a lawsuit from Cochran and Mehri and Flores’ current lawsuit.

Conclusion

The difficulty behind this topic is that it boils down to the question of how do you fix systemic racism, which doesn’t have a simple answer, which is why figuring out the correct course of action is hard. You can’t just go up to institutions and politely ask them to change their ways.

Even if you try to use ethics to dismantle one small part of the web of systemic racism, you can’t get very far without realizing it’s connected to the entire history of racism. However, it seems like the ethics of virtue and care could be the right tool when starting down this path of dismantling these hate-riddled systems.

I don’t see any large-scale change happening without a massive consumer or sponsor boycott, since money is a great motivator for corporations. The NFL has such a tight grip around sports consumers and advertisers that cater to those consumers, so I don’t think that will happen, but the result of Flores’ lawsuit could trigger both of those things to happen. It will be very interesting to follow the lawsuit and see the results of the outcome.

However, there is hope. Currently, two of the NFL’s owners are people of color; Kim Pegula who is of South Korean descent and bought the Bills in 2014, and Shahid Khan who is of Pakistani descent and bought the Jacksonville Jaguars 2012. They have broken through the glass ceiling which opens up the door for others. Also, I would imagine having peers that can advocate for people of color among the white owners builds at least a little empathy.

As the ownership lifecycle continues, however, I expect younger and more open-minded executives to come in and continue the work that Cochran and Mehri started 19 years ago.

Overall from doing this research, I realized how deeply and covert racism still stands in an institution that publicly celebrates the steps it has taken towards equity. I was completely unaware of that discrimination until Brian Flores brought it to the light, but apparently, it had been well-known between coaches and others close to the league. One thing that changes nothing but was an interesting thought I had was what if Belichick’s accidental text was actually on purpose. If so, did he do it to smear the Giants, or was it for the goodness of social justice? It would be pretty cool if it was the latter if at all.

Through the Workplace Diversity Committee, the NFL has some pipelines setup that promotes the advancement of people of color, once they figure out this problem with the Rooney Rule and resolve the lawsuit, I think their decisions will have great implications especially across the sports world but also within corporate America. If the old, sticky NFL can overcome these institutional injustices, the structures they establish can pave the way for equity in other arenas.

Works Cited

Cochran, Johnnie, and Cyrus Mehri. “Black Coaches in the National Football League: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities.” Washington, DC: Mehri & Skalet, PLLC, 2002. https://media.wix.com/ugd/520423_24cb6412ed2758c7204b7864022ebb5d.pdf.

This is the original report from Cochran and Mehri that detailed the clear discrimination the NFL exhibited, highlighted by the trend that black coaches were the last to be hired and first to be fired. This primary document is the baseline for this entire issue.

DuBois, Cynthia. “The Impact of ‘Soft’ Affirmative Action Policies on Minority Hiring in Executive Leadership: The Case of the NFL’s Rooney Rule.” American Law and Economics Review, vol. 18, no. 1, 2015, pp. 208–233., https://doi.org/10.1093/aler/ahv019.

This journal article looks at affirmative action across all of the American workforces and how affirmative action has positively impacted the employment of minorities, it has not impacted executive role hiring, with the Rooney Rule apparently proving to be an exception. It also analyzes the actual impact that the Rooney Rule has had with hiring coaches of color. This article is one of the only sources I found that directly investigates and compares the statistics before and after the Rooney Rule was created in order to analyze its effectiveness.

Franklin, Jonathan. “Civil Rights Leaders Call on the NFL to Replace the Rooney Rule.” NPR, NPR, 8 Feb. 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/02/07/1078999857/nfl-rooney-rule-civil-rights-leaders#:~:text=February%207%2C%202022-,The%20Rooney%20Rule%2C%20a%20policy%20that%20went%20into%20effect%20in,coaching%20and%20senior%20operation%20vacancies.

In this NPR article, there’s a bunch of sources, including Rev. Al Sharpton Sharpton, saying that the rule is antiquated and more of a hoop to jump through than an integral part of the hiring process. I used it for background information concerning how people are reacting to Flores’ lawsuit.

“NFL Makes Bold New Steps to Enhance Diversity.” NFL Football Operations, NFL, 19 May 2020, https://operations.nfl.com/updates/football-ops/nfl-makes-bold-new-steps-to-enhance-diversity/. Accessed 2 Mar. 2022.

This press release details the expansions the NFL added to the Rooney Rule in wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. The measures included increasing the number of head coach candidates of color and expanding the policy to team coordinators and other leading roles in the front office. It ties the committee back into the mix since it was created due to Cochran and Mehri’s report and doesn’t pop back into the paper until this event.

Ozanian, Mike, et al. “The NFL’s Most Valuable Teams 2019: Cowboys Lead League at $5.5 Billion.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 6 Sept. 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/mikeozanian/2019/09/04/the-nfls-most-valuable-teams-2019-cowboys-lead-league-at-55-billion/?sh=7c6d85fc2f1b.

This Forbes article talks about the value of the NFL teams. I use it as a brief example of how teams are valued as investments and how even the lowest-valued team is worth nearly $2 billion.

Pasquarelli, Len. “NFL Forms Diversity Committee.” ESPN, ESPN Internet Ventures, 31 Oct. 2002, https://www.espn.com/nfl/columns/pasquarelli_len/1453752.html.

This article from 2003 provides a window into the thoughts at the time of the establishment of the NFL’s Workplace Diversity Committee. It also details the members and organizations involved.

Seifert, Kevin. “Brian Flores’ NFL Lawsuit: Can He Prove Systemic Racism? What We Know about Claims of ‘Sham Interviews’ and Incentivizing Tanking, plus What’s Next.” ESPN, ESPN Internet Ventures, 2 Feb. 2022, https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/33201180/brian-flores-nfl-lawsuit-prove-systemic-racism-know-claims-sham-interviews-incentivizing-tanking-plus-next.

This ESPN piece prods into the Title VII implications of the ‘sham interviews’ that are the centerpiece of Flores’ lawsuit.

Seifert, Kevin. “Commissioner Roger Goodell Says NFL ‘Fell Short’ in Hiring of Minority Head Coaches.” ESPN, ESPN Internet Ventures, 9 Feb. 2022, https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/33253649/commissioner-roger-goodell-says-nfl-fell-short-hiring-minority-head-coaches.

This ESPN article covers the NFL commissioner’s initial response to Flores’ allegations. He said that the NFL needs to do better by finding a better way to recruit and hire coaches in a way that promotes diversity.

“The Rule at the Center of the N.F.L. Discrimination Lawsuit.” The Daily, The New York Times, 14 Feb. 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/14/podcasts/the-daily/brian-flores-nfl-rooney-rule.html

This The Daily podcast offers an in-depth look at the Rooney Rule and where it came from, also putting it in the context of the case of Brian Flores. Mehri is a source in it and he paints a more personable and colorful background to his role in the story. I use it heavily to detail the build-up and fall-out of the Rooney Rule.

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Finn Wendt is a visual journalism student at Western Washington University.

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Finn Wendt

Finn Wendt

Finn Wendt is a visual journalism student at Western Washington University.

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