Rooney Rule For Women: Step In The Right Direction Or Stepping Stone

The NFL’s Rooney Rule is already a mess. Will adding the female demographic make matters worse? 


Hartford, CT | The NFL is opening its doors to women. I’m not quite sure whether to cheer or to be angry just yet.

Therein lays the problem.

I’m confused. And I’m sure there are other women who may be filled with mixed emotions as well, because I’m not sure we can trust the NFL to get this right.

Thursday morning during the opening remarks of the NFL Women’s Summit, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell stated that the league will expand the “Rooney Rule” to include women for all NFL executive positions. While this on the surface is a step in the right direction towards gender diversity in the NFL, one would be remiss not question if it will really work.

By definition, the NFL’s Rooney Rule, named after Dan Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the chairman of the league’s diversity committee, requires teams to interview minority candidates for vacant head coaching positions. Instituted in 2003, the league has seen a rise in minority head coaching positions since its inception, but the numbers aren’t overwhelming. And there are many who have criticized the rule and have called for revision to the rule. If there are questions now, it’s not hard to assume more questions will mount when applied to women.

The biggest question looming will be how will the league decipher teams that are interviewing female candidates for genuine interest of hire versus those interviewing candidates to fulfill their obligation to the rule? The other question, if teams are not hiring women after interviewing them, will the league even care?

In 2012, there were eight vacant head coaching positions. All teams interviewed minority candidates. None were chosen. In 2013, there were 15 open position including general manager openings. Again, not one went to a minority candidate. Hard to believe of all the coaches and personnel around the league, not one minority candidate qualified for either a head coaching job or general management. It was at that time that once again a call for a revision to the rule was made, but nothing about the rule was changed in the wake of these non-hires. Instead, business proceeded as usual.

Now we are opening that same limited door of opportunity to the minority of the minority: women. Women who love and work for the game of football. Although the glass ceiling for women in the NFL has been cracked with the hiring of Sarah Thomas as the first female official in the league, Jen Welter being hired as a linebacker coach for the Cardinals during training camp last season, and Kathryn Smith being brought on by the Bills last month as the full-time special-teams quality control coach, this new extension to the Rooney Rule could be what bursts that ceiling wide open. But it’s hard to overlook that accomplishing that also means revising the mindset of the executives who may not be so inclined to add a woman to their staff. And given the NFL’s history, I’m not sure I can trust the NFL to stress the importance of that mental change.

This new policy could be biggest catch 22 in the NFL. It doesn’t help the plight of women or an NFL club to hire a woman simply because of her gender or to be in accordance of some league mandate. If there is a male candidate more qualified for a position, then by all means, he should have it. But it doesn’t help the cause either if women who are qualified aren’t taken serious as candidates because the hiring executives simply had no intentions on hiring her from the beginning, but again just following the ordinance the league has put in place. While I understand there is no way to stop either scenario, there must be some sort of balance otherwise this addition of women to the Rooney Rule has the potential cause more harm than good and maybe even slow down a process of inclusion that has already taken far too long.

For this to truly make an impact, an open mind must be the first challenge tackled. The mindset of football being a “man’s game” has to fall by the wayside; the notion that in order for a coach or executive to be successful, they had to have played this game on some level (and we know not all coaches and front office executives have played collegiate or professional football before). Coming to an understanding that the dynamics of this game and being a successful franchise means being open to try new ideas and bringing in new faces. There needs to be a general acceptance that women can be and are just as qualified as their male counterparts. There are a number of female vice presidents and league office executives. And they aren’t there just for the sake of being there or to meet a “quota”. They are there because they’ve earned the right to be there. Will this rule truly be an opportunity for other women to earn their way in the ranks of the NFL as well, or is this just a pacifying extension to make women believe they have reached a milestone in a game built on a fraternity of men?