The NFL’s Rooney Rule is a joke, and owners like it that way

The biggest obstacle to meaningful diversity in the league are the owners

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Image for article titled The NFL’s Rooney Rule is a joke, and owners like it that way
Photo: Getty Images

Could abolishing the single ownership model in the NFL be a catalyst for legitimate change in the league’s hiring processes? Probably — but there’s no real path to that abolition.

Yesterday, a group of American civil rights leaders including National Action Network founder and president Rev. Al Sharpton and NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson met with commissioner Roger Goodell to discuss the clear inefficacy of the NFL’s Rooney Rule as a tool for fighting discriminatory hiring practices. In the wake of Brian Flores’ lawsuit against the NFL, the league has been scrambling every which way to cover its “we’re not racist” bases.


In the meeting with Goodell, the civil rights leaders called for a replacement to the Rooney Rule. While the NFL’s highly specific market obviously doesn’t make rules that explicitly apply to the rest of the country’s hiring practices, a visible effort from one of the largest and most popular markets in America has the potential to effect change in other fields by setting an example. The example they’re setting right now is one of sham interviews, questionable hiring practices, and a very obvious non-commitment to diversity covered by nothing but the quickly crumbling facade of the Rooney Rule.

“However well-intentioned, the effect of the Rooney Rule has been for team decision-makers to regard interviews with candidates of color as an extraneous step, rather than an integral part of the hiring process,” said National Urban League president and CEO Marc H. Morial, per ESPN.


But what does a real change look like in the league, rather than yet another thing “the owners used to deceptively appear to be seeking real diversity,” as Sharpton put it? From where I see it, this change starts at the top — which means that it’s more than likely that the change will never happen. The thing about the NFL’s required single-ownership model is that all the owners are billionaires by rule (see: the Broncos search for one of the few people left in the United States who has that kind of money along with interest in buying a team). And the thing about billionaires is that the kind of money they have will generally get them what they want.

PFT’s Mike Florio refers to the owners as oligarchs, writing that they “will always do what they want to do, with no real accountability.” Many have inherited the teams from parents, grandparents, or spouses who bought or founded a franchise when it was worth next to nothing. Among the issues with this quasi-monarchical structure is the total lack of accountability for the person in charge. Look at the Dan Snyder situation — despite public testimony, there appears to be exactly no one who is able to legitimately hold him accountable for the culture he created in Washington, which included constant harassment of female employees spanning decades. If there were ever a reason to push an owner out, that seems like it would be the perfect time — but what governing body exists to place such a sentencing upon him?

For anything to change within the NFL, as it exists now, a majority of the owners have to agree to it — and they have no reason to vote against their own unbridled freedoms. The bylaws of the league would have to change, and fixer Goodell certainly isn’t going to lead that sort of charge against the people who pay his bills. Even if, say, the owners approved a corporation purchase of the Broncos, there’s no way that the family teams would willingly turn over their franchises to corporations. It would only be if teams went up for sale, which is a pretty rare occurrence and would not affect ownership structure throughout the league. Franchise owners have the final say in their teams’ hiring decisions, and seeing as all but one owner and one co-owner are white (and several have made openly racist remarks), there’s not exactly a push for responsible diversity coming from the decision makers.

The NFL’s refusal and inability to adopt a corporate ownership model can be pointed to as a major reason that they haven’t been able to make real change in diverse hiring practices. As Florio points out, corporations have boards, hiring managers, checks and balances, real HR departments, and more that would allow for a culture change throughout a franchise that doesn’t exist under the single-ownership model. Is widespread change guaranteed in this situation? No, not by any means — it’s not as though American corporations are all perfect in their diversity and inclusion efforts — but quite frankly, it couldn’t get worse than it is now.


The problem is that it won’t happen. The NFL can’t push the owners out — the owners are all they have. And the owners won’t outvote their own elite club, obviously. So the good news and the bad news is that the change comes from the top — we can pinpoint it, but we can’t do anything about it.