GW School of Business Research Examines Effectiveness of NFL’s Rooney Rule

October 10, 2023

A football sits on a field in a football stadium.

In the two decades since the National Football League (NFL) developed the Rooney Rule in a bid to bring more Black head coaches to the sport, businesses have adopted similar candidate-search policies to ensure diversity in their boardrooms. Some investors screen companies based on whether they have implemented a Rooney Rule policy. 

But has the Rooney Rule worked as intended for the NFL?

No, according to research by Avram Tucker Endowed Professor of Leadership and Strategy James Wade — although it could with some modification.

The original rule, which has been expanded over the years, addressed the historically low number of minority coaches in the NFL by requiring that teams interview at least one minority candidate when a head coaching vacancy occurred.

The coaching staff at most NFL franchises is led by a head coach and the defense and offense coordinators who report to the head coach. Position coaches make up the tier below coordinators. 

“Racial Disparity in Leadership: Evidence of Valuative Bias in the Promotions of National Football League Coaches,” published in the July issue of American Journal of Sociology, analyzed 1,300 coaches at all levels in the NFL between 1985 to 2015, using detailed data from the NFL Record and Fact Book. It found that white coaches were almost twice as likely to be promoted to coordinators, putting them in the most advantageous position for future selection as head coaches. Professor Wade co-authored the study with Christopher Rider at the University of Michigan, Anand Swaminathan at Emory University, and Andreas Schwab at Iowa State University. 

“Distinct from prior work, we hold constant many relevant factors like initial and current coaching position, college playing position, team and unit performance [and] time trends,” Professor Wade explained. “In short, no other empirical study on minority advancement accounts for as many factors as ours does.” 

The study found that while white coaches are no more likely to be promoted to head coach than coaches of color in the same position, white coaches are nearly twice as likely to be promoted to the coordinator position — which accounted for roughly 79 percent of the observed promotions from head coach over the three-decade period the authors analyzed.

The study also found racial disparities to be persistent, existing both before and after implementation of the Rooney Rule. 

Professor Wade suggested that a better strategy for narrowing the racial gap would be to apply the Rooney Rule to “lower-level positions in which most coaches start their careers.”

“However, such a rule — or any other intervention — is still unlikely to close the gap until equally performing and equally qualified coaches are promoted at the same rate regardless of race,” he added.

More than 57 percent of NFL players are Black, yet only three of the NFL’s 32 current head coaches are Black: Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin, Coach Todd Bowles with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Houston Texans’ Coach DeMeco Ryans. 

Professor Wade previously studied leadership positions in college football teams, where he found a strong white advantage grew out of racial stereotypicality based on physical features. He is now examining data from interviews with head coach candidates in the NFL to gauge the likelihood that minority candidates are given an interview and the chances that they will subsequently be hired. 

Some of his other current research explores the determinants of and outcomes of scandals and corruption, status dynamics among corporate CEOs, and the effects of race and gender on career mobility.

“I was trained as a sociologist,” Professor Wade said. “I’ve always been interested in why some people do better than others.”