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IU economist's study: NFL Rooney Rule hasn't led to hiring of minority coaches

Sportswriters and pundits often credit the Rooney Rule with boosting the number of minority coaches in the National Football League. But a study by Indiana University economist Todd Walker and two other researchers determined that the rule, adopted in 2003, has in fact had little impact on hiring.

The study also found little evidence of racial discrimination in the hiring of head coaches in the NFL, either before or since the Rooney Rule was adopted. The authors suggest that, if the league wants to increase the number of minority head coaches, it should focus on getting more African-Americans and Hispanics in the pipeline through low-level coaching positions.

"Our conclusion isn't that racial discrimination doesn't exist or that it's not important," said Walker, assistant professor in the IU Bloomington Department of Economics in the College of Arts and Sciences. "But if the goal is to increase the number of minority coaches, the question is, how do you go about doing that? We find that maybe the Rooney Rule isn't the best way."

The article, "Moving on Up: The Rooney Rule and Minority Hiring in the NFL," was published by the journal Labour Economics. Co-authors are John Solow, an economics professor at the University of Iowa, and Benjamin Solow, a graduate student at Boston University.

The Rooney Rule, named for Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who chaired the league's diversity committee, requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate when they have a head coaching vacancy. It was adopted in response to criticism that, while the vast majority of NFL players are African-American, there were only a handful of black coaches.

Shortly after the rule took effect, the percentage of African-American coaches more than tripled, and a recent study concluded the rule was working. But Walker and the Solows didn't agree with the methodology of that study, and they decided to conduct their own.

They focused on "level 2" coaches, offensive and defensive coordinators, since a majority of NFL head coaches are promoted from that pool of prospects. They created a data-base of every person to hold those positions between 1970 and 2008 and examined every promotion of a top-level assistant coach to a head coaching position, performing several statistical analyses of the decisions.


Steelers owner Dan Rooney with the 2006 Super Bowl champions

The results showed that decisions were based largely on the candidates' experience and success as assistant coaches -- with success determined by rankings according to points scored for offensive coordinators and points against for defensive coordinators.

Age was also a factor in hiring, as teams tended to favor younger assistants who potentially could have a long career as a head coach. But race didn't show up as a major factor in promotion decisions.

"As expected, their success as a coordinator was an important factor," John Solow told the University of Iowa News Services. "NFL teams want to win, so they hire the candidate who gives them the best chance to win."

Walker added that professional sports make a great laboratory for studying labor economics, because there is such a rich body of data for measuring performance. Unlike in many other fields, he said, "You can isolate the effects of discrimination because you're able to control for ability."

The study found essentially no difference in the consideration of race in hiring before and after the Rooney Rule went into effect, suggesting other factors accounted for the increase in the hiring of minority coaches after 2003. In fact, Rooney himself has said that the Steelers' hiring in 2007 of Mike Tomlin, an African-American, didn't result from the rule. The team had already satisfied the rule by interviewing Ron Rivera, who is Hispanic, before Tomlin surfaced as a candidate.

Walker pointed out that minority coaches are much more under-represented in the college ranks than in the pros -- and this may create a challenge for achieving equity, because many coaches break into the NFL as position coaches after starting out with college teams.

"You need to expand the pool of available talent, and the way to do that is to get more minority coaches involved early on," Walker said.

Often, he said, former players enter the coaching profession by serving as volunteer assistants while attending graduate school, a route that may be less open to minorities. If the NFL wants to expand the future talent base of coaches, he said, it might consider providing financial and other support for African-Americans and Hispanics who want to learn coaching after college.

The complete article may be read online at the journal's website.