Did the Rooney Rule Really Work?

Last week, Tobias J. Moskowitz and?L. Jon Wertheim wrote a guest post about black coaches in the NFL and the introduction of the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview at least one minority applicant when filling head-coaching spots. Moskowitz and Wertheim concluded that the policy change was successful: “The league achieved its aim. By 2005, there were six African-American coaches in the NFL…” However, a?paper by Benjamin L. Solow, John L. Solow and Todd B. Walker examines minority hiring in the NFL and challenges that conclusion. “We examine a unique data set of high-level assistant coaches (offensive and defensive coordinators) from the beginning of the 1970 season through the beginning of the 2009 season to determine whether race is a factor in NFL teams’ decisions to promote these assistants to head coach,” write the authors. “Using logit and hazard models that control for age, experience and performance, we conclude that conditional on a coach reaching coordinator status, there is no evidence that race influences head coach hiring decisions. We also find no evidence that the Rooney Rule has increased the number of minority head coaches.” [%comments]


It's gated so I can't really dive into the study but I'm skeptical from the abstract. Not finding evidence for something isn't the same thing as proving it didn't exist. Yeah, it's a step down that road but I'd like to know what they think did cause the increase. Were there no good minority coaches before? Is the increase since the Rooney Rule purely coincidental? How did they measure coaching performance, something that is as elusive to nail down as ability would be for labor economists? I'm sure its a cute paper but I need more to chew on.


Did the rule work? "The league achieved its aim." So, in a very simple analysis, yes, the NFL made a plan, executed the plan, and achieved it's goal.

What really seem to be in question here is whether or not the rule worked by it's direct effect. Did more minorities interviewed = more minorities hired?

What is much harder to measure is whether the rule had an indirect effect. Perhaps, knowing that they had a better chance to at least get interviewed, more minorities attempted to become head coaches. Perhaps, knowing that the league was serious about diversity, owners and managers gave more serious consideration to minority coaching prospects.

Did the Rooney Rule work? Maybe, but certainly it takes many factors working together to change any kind of racial or cultural bias, and the rule was only one part of that change. As a rather modest measure, only forcing interviews not hires, it surely did no harm.

Whether or not it worked, it seems like a good rule to me.



The guest posters began their research based upon the observable fact that black head coaches outperformed white ones by a significant margin before the Rooney Rule.

"Conditional on reaching coordinator status" suggests that this ignores the starting premise. Where there relatively fewer black coordinators? Were those coordinators better at their job than their white counterparts were?

Regardless of whether you believe they had to be better to get the job, the question remains unanswered from just that abstract.

The Rooney rule didn't necessarily make more head coaches black, but it did drop performance of the few black coaches back into line with white ones, suggesting that it did limit discrimination.


The Rooney Rule is also about getting African American head coaches an interview. That experience is quite valuable and although team X may have a token interview for Black Candidate Y, at least that Candidate gets experience. The hope is that at some point that the process of going through the interviews will eventually help them lead to a head coaching job, but not give it to them outright.

Or so says some of the talking heads on ESPN radio.


They should have looked to college coaches. Compare the percent of college head coaches to NFL head coaches. Its around 10 in college and about 4% or 5% of the total.

Also, its not about just coaches generally, its about the head coaches because the person in THE leadership position is a different variable in and of itself.


Having snuck past the gate, Quinton, you are right. Also, part of their argument is based on the idea that there are also few minority coaches at the career level just below head coach, which might be another valid explanator for the lack of minority head coaches, but something worth noting in its own right.

Justin McAleer

"there is no evidence that race influences head coach hiring decisions"

Um, isn't that the goal?


Of course it worked. Getting someone the interview is part of how the candidate eventually gets a job. Owner A tells owner B that "I hired coach X, but I spoke to Y and was really impressed. I thought X was a better fit for our team."

What really worked is that it was done by the owners, not the government.

The comments that precede mine are all well thought out.


It ought to be called the "Dungy Effect" corollary to the Rooney Rule. Of the six head coaches, three were assistants/coordinators for Tony Dungy when he was actively coaching.

A recent ESPN program on "The Black Athlete" made fairly clear that both mentoring and interviews are what open the door, even though that door might be in another town (i.e., a good interview - meaning not a token hour, but 5-6 hours - might not result in a hire but it can result in the phone call to another organization that is looking) (it also results in more experience for the interviewee).

Critical mass, it's all about critical mass. When critical mass is achieved, the race issues become unimportant.


I just want to add a little thing here. Head coaches tend to be picked due to something outside the interviews. While the Rooney rule does work, a front office that LOVES Rex Ryan, and has a chance to hire him isn't going to be swayed by an unknown Tony Dungy walking in.

The Rooney rule helps in the very few cases where a head coach job is open and doesn't have a strong front runner to the position. And it's been proven to be somewhat effective, but what really needs to happen is many of the coordinator roles need to have more minorities, so when there's a power vacuum they will be hired. Many teams hire head coaches from established coordinators and usually from within.

Benjamin Solow

Thanks everyone for the comments, they're all appreciated (even just the fact that you find our research interesting is appreciated). I wanted to clarify a few things that may not be apparent from the abstract.

When we say there's no evidence of race having an effect on hiring decisions, we mean that there was no evidence of it having an effect before the Rooney Rule was implemented (nor after). Furthermore, the probability of a minority coordinator being promoted to head coach (all else equal) hasn't increased after the Rooney Rule came into effect. What appears to have happened is that there are a larger number of minority coordinators now than in the past. One recommendation we make is the same as Kinglink's (#10) suggestion to take steps to increase the pipeline of minority coaches, since the issue doesn't appear to be the transition from coordinator to head coach.

Quinton (#1), you're right that we don't prove that racism didn't exist. It would be awfully hard to do that, and we don't claim to. However, the original analysis by Janice Madden claimed that discrimination did exist, and we dispute the strength of evidence for that claim. If there was discrimination in promotion from coordinator to head coach, we should have picked it up in our analysis, and we didn't. Coaching performance (notably not ability) is easily observable; for offensive coordinators, performance is a transformed version of points scored to account for variations in league scoring environment over time, and for defensive coordinators it's a similar version of points allowed. One could argue that this is an imperfect measure (it certainly is) due to something like different teams having differently skilled players, but unless there is correlation between the quality of players and the race of the coordinator, this won't bias our estimates.

Ryan (#5), we think college coaching is an interesting subject as well, but there were two reasons we didn't study college coaches. First, it was impractical due to a lack of data. Second, there is no analogue to the Rooney Rule on the college level, and that was the primary motivation for beginning the study.

David (#6), we agree that the lack of minority coaches at the coordinator level is worth noting in its own right. Another thing worth noting is that the Rooney Rule doesn't apply to coordinator hires, and therefore is likely ineffective as an anti-discrimination measure. It's important to remember that we're only studying the final promotion in the coaching tree, and don't claim to have studied discrimination in the NFL in general. We restrict ourselves to the specific promotion from coordinator to head coach for methodological reasons, not because we think the question of discrimination at the lower levels is uninteresting.