The Rooney Rule appears to mask a larger racial problem in coaching

WA study shows just how much discrimination affects promotion of coaches. (USATSI)
A study shows just how much discrimination affects promotion of coaches. (USATSI)

The NFL has a rule in place called the Rooney Rule. Established in 2003, the rule -- which is named after Dan Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and chairman of the league's diversity committee -- requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for an open head-coaching position.

Though some occasionally criticize teams for giving minority candidates "token" interviews before hiring their preferred white candidate, the rule mostly has institutional support. ESPN's Mina Kimes, though, unearthed a study from professors at Georgetown, George Washington, Emory and Iowa State University that noted there is a huge loophole in the rule: It doesn't apply to coordinators or position coaches.

As such, non-white coaches routinely have far less chance of advancing to the point where they would even be on a list to interview for head-coaching openings. White coaches are far more likely, according to the study, to be hired to and promoted beyond the coordinator and position coach jobs, which is how coaches get on those head-coach interview lists in the first place.

The study analyzed the careers of more than 1,200 coaches (including tests for whether things like "the performance of each coach's team or individual unit, his age, his degree and whether he had been part of a championship staff, among other inputs" negated the so-called "white coach effect," which they did not) between 1985 and 2012, with the big, alarming takeaway from Kimes' article being this:

By controlling for this factor, Rider and his co-authors (professors James B. Wade, Anand Swaminathan and Andreas Schwab) could drill down to a simple question: If you take white and black coaches who oversee the same position, are they equally likely to advance?

The answer, according to the data, is no. The white coach is 114 percent more likely to become a coordinator. "Black coaches are less likely to be promoted than white ones, independent of their first position, their current position, their employer, their prior experience, their education and their age," the authors wrote.

And so we're left with a simple explanation: discrimination. Rider and his team estimated that it takes nine years before a white coach has a greater than 50 percent chance of becoming coordinator, compared with 14 years for a nonwhite coach. Though the salaries for various positions aren't public, the professors used back-of-the-envelope math to approximate that, over a 20-year career, a white coach is likely to earn over $20 million more than his nonwhite counterpart.

The "factor" alluded to in the first sentence of that excerpt is that quarterbacks coaches are the position coaches most likely to become head coaches, and because white players are more likely to be quarterbacks than non-white players, they are also more likely to become quarterbacks coaches. Still, even after accounting for that fact, the differences in the likelihood for advancement, the length of time it takes for advancement, and in salary are staggeringly high.

Kimes also noted that the "white coach effect" has not declined at all in recent years, and that it is stronger at the lower end of the spectrum (i.e. position coaches and the like) than the top, where white head-coaching candidates were 13 percent more likely to get the gig than their non-white counterparts. That's part of the reason why there were only nine non-white defensive coordinators and three non-white offensive coordinators this season, Kimes wrote. Unless and until that balance shifts, the Rooney Rule at the top of the pyramid may in fact just be a Band-Aid on a larger issue.

CBS Sports Writer

Jared Dubin is a New York lawyer and writer. He joined CBSSports.com in 2014 and has since spent far too much of his time watching film and working in spreadsheets. Full Bio

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