McDonough School of Business
News Story

Research Finds Diversity Challenges in Hiring NFL Head Coaches

White assistant coaches are twice as likely to be promoted to a coordinator position than minority coaches, according to new research led by Chris Rider, assistant professor of strategy at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business.

The Rooney Rule, established in 2003, requires NFL owners to interview a minority candidate when hiring a new head coach. No hiring requirement is imposed, but the expectation is that diversifying the interview list will lead to more diversity among head coaches. However, analyses of NFL career data of more than 1,200 coaches from 1985 to 2012 suggest that little has changed for minority assistant coaches.

“We can’t say the Rooney Rule has made any difference [to head coaches or assistants],” said Rider. “In fact, our analyses indicate that we would see increasing diversity at the head coach level even without the Rooney Rule.”

The percentage of minority coaches at all levels has increased over time. But, Rider says what matters to evaluating the Rooney Rule is not whether that percentage has increased but, rather, if it has increased more than if there had been no Rooney Rule.

Rider and his co-authors, James B. Wade, George Washington University; Anand Swaminathan, Emory University; and Andreas Schwab, Iowa State University, tested several common explanations for why the racial disparity had not changed. They controlled for factors such as experience, education, age, team performance, and trends over time, and still found that whites were more likely to get promoted than similarly-qualified minorities.

“Our study is the first to rule out these alternative explanations,” said Rider. “We were surprised by the magnitude of what we term the ‘white coach effect.’ We found that white coaches were 114 percent more likely to get promoted to the coordinator position than minority coaches.”

That does not necessarily mean that Rooney Rule should end. Most owners, general managers, and coaches agree that an expansive search leads to good hires. The authors believe that expanding the Rooney Rule to focus on promotions to coordinator positions would likely enhance the effectiveness of the rules governing head coach searches (70 percent of promotions to head coach are from the coordinator position). In their view, the current Rooney Rule diversifies the interview list but its effectiveness is limited because it does not diversify the candidate pool (e.g., coordinators).

Minority representation at the position coach level has increased over time so there are now many more minority coaches with valuable coaching experience. Yet, white coaches continue to be more likely to be promoted to coordinator than minority coaches with similar qualifications. Although the pipeline is expanding, the research highlights how racial disparity in promotions to coordinator serves as a bottleneck.

With this new data, the authors want to collaborate with the NFL to evaluate alternatives, such as the Bill Walsh Minority Coaching Fellowship program. They are interested in whether or not the Rooney Rule works, as well as exploring other solutions to see what will work best.

Rider’s research has appeared on ESPN and in the New York Times and Reuters.