When Football And Tech Meet: On The Rooney Rule And Diversity Hiring In Silicon Valley

By Alexandrea Alphonso / @Drea_Alphonso

Black Monday in the National Football League (NFL) has come and gone. With that befalls the dismissal of six head coaches (you can throw a GM in there) and the franchises they once led. For most teams, the writing has been on the wall, but for others, the news was met with shock and disappointment. As expected, these vacancies have drummed up interesting discussions and excitement (even wishful thinking) about former NFL coaches Jon Gruden and Jim Harbaugh re-entering the professional spotlight. However, there should be equal enthusiasm and consideration for viable candidates like Harold Goodwin, Teryl Austin, Anthony Lynn and Vance Joseph to name a few, given the league’s commitment to the Rooney Rule.

As a Bay Area techie and woman of color, the concept of the Rooney Rule hits close to home. According to the Wall Street Journal, people of color hold between 1-7 percent of the top technology jobs. When it comes to executive positions, the percentage drops to no more than four percent. This challenge of diversity and lack thereof is no stranger to the leadership ranks of the NFL. Since the start of professional football in 1920 all the way up to 2003, less than two percent of the head coaching positions have been held by coaches of color. In an effort to reverse the status quo, the Rooney Rule was implemented after Tony Dungy and Dennis Green were underhandedly relieved of their coaching duties in 2002. Named after Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and former head of the league’s diversity committee, the rule mandates teams interview at least one minority candidate for any vacant head coach position. As a result of its implementation, the number of black head coaches jumped to fifteen with six still calling the shots today.

Taking a page from the policy’s playbook and compelled by President Obama’s TechHire initiative, Facebook, Pinterest and Amazon are now using the Rooney Rule to tackle diversity in the workforce. Though it might be premature to assess its impact on the corporate world, from the NFL vantage point and in theory, the Rooney Rule has catapulted the careers of high caliber coaches like Marvin Lewis, Lovie Smith, Mike Tomlin and Ron Rivera. By the same token, it also propelled Smith and Dungy to the Super Bowl stage in 2007. This was the first (and hopefully, not the last) time in NFL history in which two black head coaches battled for the title.

Yet these historic moments also expose deeper problems the rule fails to address. An extensive study conducted by the late Johnnie L. Cochran and Cyrus Mehri unmasked the alarming trend of coaches of color being held to unfair standards. Prior to the Rooney Rule, coaches of color “led their teams to the playoffs 67 percent of the time versus 39 percent of the time for [their counterparts]...and averaged 2.7 more wins...in their first season." Cochran and Mehri's research also proved that despite their “superior performance," head coaches of color had the tendency of being quickly terminated and were not shown the same “patience as white coaches who didn’t win”.

Take the the case of Lovie Smith in what was deemed a “football tragedy," by sports writer Chuck Modiano. Modiano examines the “line of credit” coaches like Smith never truly receive due to systematic biases still at play in the league. In comparison, Jeff Fisher, former head coach of the Los Angeles Rams, accumulated only six winning seasons over the course of a 22-year career. Meanwhile Smith, who led the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl, built a top tier defense and posted a 10-6 record in what would be his last year, was fired. Even after landing the role with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2014, Smith suffered the same fate and was terminated two seasons later.

Though the Rooney Rule is rooted in delivering a fundamental change to the leadership ranks of the game, in practice, it plays a finite role in transforming what we see on the sidelines and achieving the league’s bold commitment to diversity. The rule, however, does hold the league’s franchises accountable to ensure there are actionable steps taken to level the playing field. Undoubtedly, bridging this gap is not only important to the tech industry as it positively impacts economic growth and directly correlates to a more qualified workforce but as professed by the NFL, “[it’s] the right thing to do both for moral and ethical reasons as well as for the long-term business success of the League”.

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