McDonough School of Business
News Story

The Uneven Playing Field

Research reveals what may be blocking diversity in NFL coaching.
By Melanie Padgett Powers
Photo by Gary Landsman

The National Football League has measures in place to increase the chance that minorities will be hired as head coaches. But in assessing all levels of coaching jobs, a Georgetown researcher found the NFL has a long way to go to level the playing field.

The league’s Rooney Rule requires teams to interview at least one minority before hiring a head coach. However, a 2016 study conducted by Chris Rider, Graham Family Fellow and associate professor of strategy at the McDonough School of Business — along with colleagues from George Washington University, Emory University, and Iowa State University — reveals that the issue may be more complicated than what is happening at the top.

In the NFL, position coaches are typically promoted to coordinators, then coordinators to head coaches. The study showed that white coaches in the NFL are 50 percent more likely than minorities to be promoted to any position. The researchers examined the careers of more than 1,200 men who were NFL coaches from 1985 to 2012. The racial gap persisted when they accounted for a coach’s starting and current positions, education, team performance, experience, and other factors.

We’ve been able to identify very precisely where the bottleneck is in reaching the top, and that’s one level below where many think it is.”
—Chris Rider, Graham Family Fellow and Associate Professor of Strategy

“If we were just to take all coordinators, we would see that there was no racial advantage or disadvantage in promotion rates from coordinator to head coach,” said Rider, an organizational theorist.

But there was a dramatic difference between whites and blacks making the move from position coach to coordinator. Whites had a 114 percent greater chance of being promoted from position coach to coordinator, and 70 percent of head coaches are promoted from the coordinator position. Only 16 percent make the leap from position coach to head coach. Furthermore, it takes nine years for a white coach to have a greater than 50 percent probability of being promoted to coordinator; it takes a minority coach 14 years to reach that same probability.

“We often think colloquially about there being a pipeline issue: ‘There aren’t enough good candidates who are minorities,’” Rider said. “Even at universities, we have search committees that go out of their way to invite applications from underrepresented groups. What we can show in the NFL is that it’s not a pipeline issue.”

In fact, he says, the number of minority position coaches and coordinators has been increasing dramatically over the past few decades.

“We’ve been able to identify very precisely where the bottleneck is in reaching the top, and that’s one level below where many think it is,” Rider said. “It’s not the promotion to head coach. It’s the promotion to the position typically occupied before becoming head coach.”

Lessons for Leaders
Across the United States, organizational leaders beyond the sports world remain predominantly white despite efforts to increase diversity. Some organizations, such as the University of Texas System institutions and the City of Portland, Oregon, have modeled their hiring practices after the Rooney Rule in an attempt to close the racial gap. Rider offered a few insights for organizations to consider:

  1. The Rooney Rule shapes the interview list, not the candidate pool. It does this by selecting minorities already near the top. “The candidate pool is the true bottleneck, the true constraint on reaching equality in terms of reaching the top,” Rider said.
  2. Look for ways to strengthen the pipeline of candidates. The ideal policy to close the racial gap remains unclear. However, Rider and his colleagues see promise in the Bill Walsh NFL Minority Coaching Fellowship, which exposes qualified minority college coaches to NFL summer training camps. The program was created in 1987, and every NFL team now participates.
  3. Examine your promotion system at entry and management levels. That is what later shapes the pool of people for the top jobs. “If they’re just looking at one level below, they’re not looking down far enough,” Rider said.

Published in Georgetown Business magazine, Fall 2016