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NFL's Rooney Rule: What is it and how does it work?

The NFL implemented a policy in 2003 that requires teams interview minority candidates.

Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy... Photo credit should read JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images

The NFL requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and general manager positions before those vacancies are filled.

This policy is commonly known as the “Rooney Rule.” It was named after former Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who spearheaded an effort to put the policy in place in 2003.

Why was the Rooney Rule added? Calls for increased diversity in the NFL’s coaching ranks spiked in 2002 when two of the few African-American coaches in the league at the time — Tony Dungy and Dennis Green — were fired, despite finding success during their tenures.

Civil-rights lawyers Cyrus Mehri and Johnny Cochran, and two former NFL players, Kellen Winslow and John Wooten, campaigned for change that eventually led to Rooney recommending the policy.

Via The New Yorker:

The catalyst for the Rooney Rule was the firing, in 2002, of two African-American head coaches: Tony Dungy, by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Dennis Green, by the Minnesota Vikings. It had been Green’s first season with a losing record in ten years as head coach; Dungy became the first coach with a winning record to be fired by the Bucs. In a study released later that year, Mehri and Cochran demonstrated that even though black head coaches won a higher percentage of games, they were less likely to be hired and more likely to be fired than their white counterparts.

The rule was put into place in 2003.

Has the Rooney Rule made a difference? It’s hard to cite specific examples of when a coach or GM made the most of an interview, because it’s impossible to say if they would’ve received the opportunity otherwise. However, in just a few seasons there was a significant jump in the number of African-American coaches in the NFL.

At the time the rule was put in place, Dungy and Herman Edwards were the only minority coaches in the NFL.

The Steelers hired Mike Tomlin in 2007, although Rooney said he wasn’t interviewed to comply with the league’s policy as the team already interviewed future Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera.

What happens if a team doesn’t follow the Rooney Rule? Whenever a team makes a quick hire, there is typically concern that the franchise didn’t properly follow the rules. Those concerns were raised in 2018 when the Oakland Raiders scooped up Jon Gruden, though it was reported that the team did interview a minority candidate.

In 2003, shortly after the rule was put in place, the Lions fired Marty Mornhinweg and immediately hired Steve Mariucci without interviewing other candidates. It cost the team a $200,000 fine.