top of page
  • Writer's pictureAhmmad Brown

There Is No Panacea For Inequity: Three Lessons For DEI Work From The Rise And Fall Of The Rooney Rule

Updated: May 30

Yesterday’s Super Bowl, which featured two Black starting quarterbacks, was of monumental importance—not only for the NFL, whose history is rife with examples of Black quarterbacks being denied opportunities to play the quarterback position—but for organizations more broadly. The leadership displayed by Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts, voted one and two respectively for the NFL’s regular season Most Valuable Player award, provides hope for racial equity in a society in which biases and structural racism have limited Black people’s access to the highest levels of organizations.

This year’s Super Bowl was not the first example of such hope on football’s grandest stage. Sixteen years ago, head coaches Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith met in Super Bowl XLI, marking the first (and still only) time that two Black head coaches faced off in the Super Bowl. In recent years, however, this hope has been dispelled given the lack of Black representation in the NFL’s head coaching ranks. In the 2022 regular season, there were three Black head coaches compared to a high of seven at the start of the 2011, 2017, and 2018 seasons.

Discussions of the lack of racial diversity among the league’s coaching ranks inevitably lead to debates about the Rooney Rule, which in its original form required NFL teams to interview at least one diverse candidate for head coaching jobs. Although the Rooney Rule was once praised as heralding a new era of diversity in the NFL and enthusiastically adopted by corporate America, it has more recently been described as a “failed” rule, with creators of Rooney-inspired policies in other industries distancing themselves from the rule and Civil Rights leaders advocating for its replacement.

So how did the Rooney Rule, which could be seen as just one simple guideline for addressing racial bias in the NFL, come to have such a dazzling rise and fall in public opinion? The answer reveals our collective misplaced expectations rather than an inherent flaw with the rule itself.

Conceived in 2002 by lawyers Cyrus Mehri and the late Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. and named after former Pittsburgh Steelers owner and internal advocate Dan Rooney, the Rooney Rule was proposed in response to the lack of Black coaches (two out of 32) in the NFL—a glaring inequity given the high proportion of Black players in the league. While its actual impact has been debated, the conception of the rule was premised on empirical analysis by labor economist Janice Madden that was later supported by peer-reviewed work done by Madden herself and by the late public policy scholar, Cynthia DuBois. The takeaway from their work is clear: diverse candidate slates help create equal opportunity.

Initially, the Rooney Rule was considered a monumental success. In addition to increasing the number of Black head coaches in the first 10 years of the rule, the Rooney Rule was positioned to become popular in a variety of organizational contexts. The sentiment behind the rule resonated broadly. Add in the NFL’s high profile, approval from President Obama, and a catchy alliterative name, and it wasn’t long before “the Rooney Rule” became common across industries. It was celebrated as a simple diversity fix.

But therein lies the issue. There is no such thing as a simple fix when it comes to DEI, and certainly not for racial equity. As has been extensively reported, rather than seizing the opportunity to build on the Rooney Rule and truly make the league more equitable, NFL leaders did little to hold teams accountable to the spirit of the rule or its implementation.

These challenges are not unique to the NFL. They play out across industries as leaders realize that the Rooney Rule or similar policies cannot single-handedly undo the influence of structural racism in our organizations. I have worked directly with Rooney Rule co-creator Cyrus Mehri on workplace equity research and consulting, and in my time working with Cyrus and other DEI practitioners, I’ve seen first-hand how policies like the Rooney Rule are too often set up to fail. DEI success mandates genuine commitment from leadership to drive progress and support the accountability and culture shifts that follow. Leaders, however, too often see DEI as a series of box-checking exercises rather than integrated work that requires coherent strategy.

The fact of the matter is that no narrow rule or policy, be it the Rooney Rule, Rooney Rule version 2.0, or Rooney Rule Replacement, can quickly or singularly solve the structural and cultural DEI challenges of the NFL and so many other organizations.

And it is here that the Rooney Rule’s rise and fall is most instructive: Until leaders respect the sheer breadth and depth of the work that is required to make organizations more diverse, equitable, and inclusive, and then make the requisite commitments to both the work itself and accountability for the work, organizations will continue to overburden single policies that were never designed to get the job done alone.

So, what do the lessons of the Rooney Rule’s rise and fall in public perception mean for organizational leaders? Three related things:

  1. Afford DEI the same strategic and analytic rigor you apply to other core elements of your business. The business case for DEI has long been acknowledged. In turn, leaders should treat racial equity and DEI like any other strategic imperative by giving it the conceptual and analytic rigor required for success.

  2. Give DEI work the resources, space, and time that it needs to realize outcomes. The work that we now conceive of as DEI has been done for centuries, and yet, we continue to exist in a society in which inequities and injustice persist. Perhaps more than any other strategic imperative your organization may have, DEI success mandates commitment to the work despite setbacks or perceived failures. Take a design approach and give team members spearheading DEI work the freedom to prototype solutions, implement them, learn from successes and failures, and iterate.

  3. Hold yourself accountable for continued commitment to processes. The adage “what gets measured gets done,” while generally useful, has not consistently proved to be the case for DEI work—see the persistent lack of Black and Latino representation in tech companies despite the release of diversity reports as an example. Even more important than pursuing short-term outcomes like diversity hiring goals is a commitment to long-term and well-conceived strategies and their associated processes.

The Rooney Rule is not and never was a panacea, and neither are single-policy-change solutions on which so many organizations hang their DEI strategies. Unless we acknowledge this, we will perpetually find ourselves where we are now: squabbling over standalone policies instead of doing the deep work to build real change.

This article originally appeared in Forbes on the posting date.

Recent Posts

See All


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page