On April 18, the city of Pittsburgh gathered to remember the life of one of its great sons, Dan Rooney. Although Oakland’s St. Paul Cathedral was the place of meeting, perhaps Heinz Field would have been more fitting; Rooney, despite his slender frame at 84 years-old, was a Steeler through-and-through. The cathedral’s ensemble included family and friends, among them current and former superstars of the National Football League and American politics; the Steelers’ Antonio Brown and Franco Harris mingled with the likes of President Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry. The diverse group was a testament to the legacy that Rooney leaves behind. For some 45 years, Rooney, as chairman of the organization his father Art first created, was a driving force behind the Steelers, making the team one of the most formidable franchises in the world, bringing six Super Bowl championships to the Steel City, and creating a massive global fan base. Meanwhile, the attendance of a former president and Secretary of State suggest another legacy: for three years, Rooney, an early supporter of candidate Obama, dutifully served as ambassador to Ireland.
In true Pittsburgh fashion, this man of simple kindness leaves behind a legacy both accomplished and versatile. And yet, friends of Rooney, whether from the gridiron, Washington, or the North side of Pittsburgh, can likely agree that the legacy of this Steeler best lives on through the rule that bears his name. The Rooney Rule has already begun to reshape the face of the NFL, and by expanding its application into public and private spheres, hiring practices and the very core of the American workforce can be changed for the better.
Since 2003, the Rooney Rule has mandated that NFL teams must interview at least one minority candidate for head coach openings. It was expanded in 2009 to include general manager jobs and equivalent front-office positions. More recently, the rule was further expanded to include provisions requiring that, for all executive openings in the league commissioner’s office, a female candidate must be considered. The rule initially came in response to a central paradox in the league’s character: while upwards of 70 percent of NFL’s athletes are African-American, in the 12 seasons before the implementation of the Rooney Rule, only six non-white head coaches led teams. The Rooney Rule has helped the NFL address this paradox, bringing the number of head coaches of color to an all-time high. Still, even in commending this praiseworthy progress, it would be foolhardy to overlook the concerns noted by skeptics. It is too easy for teams to substitute an honest quest for diversity with feigned, half-hearted interviews. Just as importantly, lower level coaching positions are not protected by the rule; this weakens the chances of a qualified candidate to climb the hierarchical ladder inherent in any working environment.
These concerns, while legitimate, speak to the frustration not with the rule itself, but with its leisurely rate of progress. As Jeremi Duru, professor at American University’s Washington College of Law, notes “it’s not that the outcome of each particular interviewing season is going to vindicate the rule, but rather that the rule will put in place the sense that, in order to be the best, you have to think broadly. It’s the idea that in order to succeed and be competitive, you have to look at a deep pool of candidates.” Indeed, Duru’s hypothesis seems to hold water: eight of the last 18 Super Bowl champions have been led by an African-American head coach or general manager.
The impact of the Rooney Rule as well as the implications of Duru’s hypothesis extend far past the NFL. These practices should make us reflect more generally on hiring practices in this country, beyond just sports. In the most utilitarian of senses, racially discriminatory hiring practices unnecessarily reduce the pool of applicants; such practices, though perhaps not institutionalized, remain alive and well in the current system. This is seen in the oft-cited study by economists Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, in which the researchers applied to clerical services and customer service posts with fake resumes, some with names commonly associated with African-Americans and others with whites. Though the resumes’ contents were unchanged, those with “white-sounding names” garnered 50 percent more callbacks. Other studies have found that African-American applicants face augmented discrimination when applying for jobs with a customer service focus, such as jobs titled “advisor” or “representative.” These findings suggest that the root of hiring discrimination is the employer’s desire to accommodate the perceived biases of their customers, revealing the reflexive nature of hiring discrimination.
Diversity in the workplace is about so much more than numbers, bare minimums, and outward projections; at its core, maintaining a diverse workforce helps ensure a competitive edge for a company. A 2013 study by Harvard Business Review economists found that when a firm maintains both acquired diversity—that which is gained from experience—and inherent diversity—that which results from traits involving ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation—in its leadership, it is 45% likelier to report market share growth and 70% likelier to report that the firm captured a new market. The study also found that when a company has a team member that shares a client’s ethnicity, it is 152% likelier to understand that client. And yet, in that same study, 78% of the companies examined lacked this “two-dimensional” diversity.
Even more frighteningly, in work settings that lack such diverse leadership, people of color are 24% less likely to win endorsement for their ideas in comparison to straight white men, and the percentages are similar for women and LGBTQ individuals. It is common sense that a company best succeeds when its team members come to the task at hand with a diverse toolbox of experience. But a study like this makes one thing abundantly clear: if a firm is to compete, it needs diversity at the top.
And that is where the Rooney Rule returns to our consideration. It’s time that we take a page from the NFL’s playbook and implement the Rooney Rule across our hiring practices with a particular focus on executive positions. Certain industries have begun to voluntarily do so. Some Silicon Valley companies, where abysmal diversity records are commonplace (for example, only 1 percent of Google employees are African American), have pledged to adopt the policy. Facebook, Pinterest, and Amazon have all recently pledged to adhere to the rule. But there is currently little besides public image that holds these private companies to compliance with the rule. In order to address this accountability problem, the private sector should again look to the model set forth by the NFL. Since 2003, the Fritz Pollard Alliance has served as an affinity group of minority coaches, scouts, and front office personnel, working in partnership with teams to seek talented minority candidates. A corollary to the Alliance could be formed to help identify rising minority talent in various industries, providing no excuse for sectors like Wall Street, where only five of the Fortune 500 companies are led by African American CEOs, to continue exclusionary hiring practices at the top.
But perhaps the best place to improve inclusionary hiring is in the public sector, where enforceability may be more possible. Again, our story returns to Western Pennsylvania, where on April 19, the day after commemorating the life of Dan Rooney, the city of Pittsburgh and Mayor Bill Peduto pledged to adopt the rule in its own hiring practices, applying it to any supervisory job in the city’s government as well as in its contracting practices. Urban and municipal governments ought to follow Pittsburgh’s lead in actively seeking diversity at the top through a robust application of the Rooney Rule.
Today, since the passing of Dan Rooney, the face of the Steelers organization is that of head coach Mike Tomlin, a face of color. Tomlin, the youngest head coach in the league’s history to win a Super Bowl championship, is a testament both to the legacy of Rooney and, more importantly, to that of the success that comes with diverse executive leadership.