The Rooney Rule’s Love-Hate History


The NFL’s “Rooney Rule” dictates that for all head-coaching openings, each team must interview at least one minority candidate. Of course, there is no quota or preference given to African Americans in hiring. So no actual white head coach candidates are harmed in the execution of the Rooney Rule.

Can corporations outside of sports with poor-to-zero minority leadership numbers effectively utilize the Rooney Rule for fixing perceived “diversity hiring” problems? Can voluntary imposition of the rule jump-start a sustainable culture of diversity and inclusion? Should companies run with it, or pass on it?

Let’s get some context here.

There are only two ways to advance a football on the field. Ground or air. For half a century, the Steelers chose “ground.”

The idea of throwing an overhand spiral forward pass was credited to two men, Howard R. “Bosey” Reiter of Wesleyan University, who said he learned it in 1903, and Eddie Cochems, the coach at St. Louis University. Bradbury Robinson completed the first legal pass on September 5, 1906.‘ The forward pass has since kept North American stadium crowds and television audiences leaping to their feet.

The Steelers, on the other hand, sustained a tradition of the running game. On the field, they didn’t work hard to hide the run. They just dared the opposing team to stop them. Seldom much in the way of “razzle-dazzle,” trick plays or creativity. The team lined up, the QB yelled out the predictable signals, and they executed. Then they did it again. And again.

And they lost.

Rather than passing the ball, the Pittsburgh Steelers passed on alternative airborne talent for decades. For example, the Steelers drafted Johnny Unitas in the NINTH round. He didn’t make the cut. “The Golden Arm” went on to become one of the greatest throwing quarterbacks in NFL history.

Over the course of their first four decades, the hapless Pittsburgh Steelers posted a winning record only eight times in their first 39 NFL seasons, no championships. They drafted runners every season…and they lost every season.

The ground game was in the Steelers’ cultural DNA, until the 1970s when Terry Bradshaw came along. The Steelers finally discovered the joys of diversity in play calling six decades after the pass had become a staple in league play. Even then, six SuperBowl wins and decades later, their game strategy has only begun to visibly shift.  The turf-bound culture in the Steeler DNA is showing some sign of giving ground.

It is that dogged stick-to-it-no-matter-what mentality that brought about the simple, straight-up-the-middle “Rooney Rule.” You want us to interview black coach candidates? Sure. Bring ’em.

However, that Rooney Rule should also be understood in the context of a very specific coaching, style, as well as a team “deep structure” culture. Once the turf-bound culture was moderated just a bit, Head Coach Chuck Knoll instilled a talent strategy he termed, “Best Available Athlete.”

Rather than drafting the star “impact player,” a singularly incredible specialized talent for a single position, Art Rooney, Jr. mastered the art of scouting by factoring height, weight, speed/quickness, strength, agility, sticky hands, mental quickness, grasp of the game, etc., and applied his math to a “fit” to the game design rather than a position-centric evaluation.  The talent search became more of a “balanced scorecard” assessment long before it was popular in business. Rooney had a gift for spotting men who were interchangeable rather than star quality specialists.

That, too, became embedded in the team’s core culture. It carried to the next generation of the Rooney family ownership and operation of the team. (Anybody remember Kordell “Slash” Stewart?)

For the Rooney Rule’s namesake, Dan Rooney (2003), “Black” was just one more thing for any position. Fine, bring it. To get hired, they still had to be the best available coach/athlete, nothing less. That “one more thing” wasn’t especially meaningful or important enough to the Steelers in the hiring process to make a fuss about it. “Black Best” available coach wasn’t a stretch for them. It didn’t represent a change to the team’s extant culture.

“Is that what our fans want? Okay, just add it to the list like it matters.” Was it that simple for the Rooneys?  Apparently so.  The Rooney culture just executed their new rule, and has been winning with a Black Head Coach since hiring Mike Tomlin in 2007. But, wait…

“The coach who might be 
the Rooney Rule’s greatest advertisement 
didn’t benefit from it.”

“”Let me say this: Mike Tomlin was not part of the Rooney Rule,” [Dan] Rooney said. “We had already interviewed Ron Rivera [then the Bears’ defensive coordinator], and so that fulfilled the obligation,” Rooney said. “We went on, had heard about Mike, called him in and talked to him. He was very impressive.””

They interviewed three minorities for that single position.

In context, when the Rooney Rule was implemented, African American coaching talent was apparently in good supply (despite the claims of some). No football team had to do extensive talent searches to find good coaching talent of any color. There was a fairly well defined, finite and easily searched population. They weren’t exactly getting thousands of quality resumes for head coaching positions. And the Rooney Rule was, at that time, targeting just that one discrete lonely position.

The Rooneys just did it, didn’t stop there, and never looked back.

Not only that, and perhaps most importantly, the Rooney Rule wasn’t even remotely a starting point for some racially-challenged organization experimenting with diversity hiring. The Steeler Head Coach wasn’t going to be “The Black Hire.

The much loved Rooney family had long overcome race as a recruitment-hiringobstacle in the broader on-field positions, from hiring the NFL’s first African-American assistant coach in 1957, to starting a black quarterback in the early 1970s.  The Head Coach position wasn’t their first diversity rodeo.

It hasn’t been so easy for the rest of the NFL to make that shift. It is, after all, still called the “Rooney Rule” and not generically “The NFL Rule” for a reason. Different teams in different cities, different cultures, different strategies and different coaching philosophies, not to mention different fans. Not everyone is enamored with the Rooney Rule, as:

…and much more.

That being the case, should corporations run with it, or pass on it?

Given the sophisticated HR technologies at their disposal, the Rooney Rule may in fact be one of the laziest methods yet for corporate diversity talent drafts.

That alone doesn’t make it a bad thing.

It is a blunt force instrument in the hands of otherwise innovative, creative, tech-savvy C-Level executives.  That includes highly compensated Chief Diversity Officers with PhDs.  They all dwell together in data-rich environments with fingertip-accessible international reach to a diverse, broad and deep global talent pool.

And they’ve dredged up a decade-old football play.

The good news is that a slap-dash Hail Mary application of a legacy sports rule may indeed alter corporate employee demographics in the short term, in a few cases. The bad news is that it won’t generate sustainable inclusive organizational cultures in the long term. As we saw with the Baltimore Police Department,introducing racial “diversity” into an organization doesn’t by itself change the organizational culture.

For most business organizations experimenting with a Rooney Rule approach, the beneficiary position will most likely be restored to its former demographic within a single tenure cycle, and most likely the experiment will be officially declared over.

Still, kudos to any organization new to diversity hiring in 2016 that makes a solid public relations hit using a 2003 Pittsburgh Steeler football rule meant for one position.

But…what if every employer in every sector did it for every open position in the next decades of this century? At only 10% of the U.S. population, African American unemployment could vanish in a single generation, and diversity consulting could become obsolete.

Though it sounds incredible, it is theoretically possible that the Rooney Rule could become the corporate HR equivalent of the “forward pass” in diversity hiring, the next best thing since Affirmative Action of the 1970s.  

Until it’s made illegal. 

Copyright © 2016 – Robert D. Jones – All Rights Reserved


Cultural neutrality” is achieved through an operationalized “attitude of impartiality.” Everybody has one or more cultures, and everyone is embroiled in or affected by related intercultural conflict. The CultureNeutral® Framework is a system of thought and action that provides a manageable space in which to disengage from needless intercultural conflicts, and better manage a wide range of normal conflict by applying the principle of neutrality personally, in our families, workplaces, communities, and citizenships.

No Comments Yet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *