By Jacob Witten ’14

Volume XXXIV, Issue 3, December 14, 2012

    More than 40 years after the Civil Rights Act, America has obviously made great strides in racial equality—to the point where there is a significant portion of the population that thinks racism is no longer a problem. Moreover, libertarians such as Senator Rand Paul even express ambivalence about the Civil Rights Act, preferring a market-based approach to ending discrimination (is it just libertarians?). The logic is sound at first glance: since minorities are just as talented as white people, the market should select against racial preferences. But does it work in practice? It would be useful to have a model system for a comparison of market-based versus top-down governmental approaches to ending discrimination.
Fortunately, there is a fantastic model—the National Football League and the Rooney Rule. The Rooney Rule, implemented in 2003, requires that NFL teams interview at least one minority candidate whenever they are filling a head coaching job.
The market-based and governmental approaches would make very different predictions about the effect of this rule. According to a libertarian, the market would already be efficient, so nothing should change—the most qualified candidate will be hired regardless of race (because winning games means making more money), whether or not some random requirement about interviews is in place.
On the other hand, it is possible that there was a systematic bias against black coaches, subconscious or not (on a sad and related note, Donald Sterling, the owner of the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Clippers, was once quoted as wanting his team to be “poor black boys from the South and a white head coach”). In that case, the Rooney Rule could be effective, providing opportunities to challenge racist tendencies among team officials.
In this game of predictions, the regulation-happy meddlers win by a landslide. Not only were more black coaches hired—the numbers shot up from six percent prior to the Rooney Rule to 22 percent in 2006—but the market actually became more efficient. Prior to the Rooney Rule, black coaches won an average of 9.1 wins per season against a total average of eight, which means that only the best black coaches were hired and the marginal black candidate in the applicant pool was better than the marginal white candidate. Afterwards, black coaches have hit the global average of eight wins per season.
In fairness, we shouldn’t go wild with these numbers because when attempts are made to correct for the quality of team that coaches take over, the results waver in and out of statistical significance. That is, black coaches pre-Rooney Rule tended to take over better teams so the effect is not as strong as it first appears.
Even taking into account that caveat, though, the Rooney Rule has been a stunning success. It is as innocuous a rule as has ever existed—it only requires an interview, not actual hiring—yet it has gone a long way towards ending harmful bias against minorities in the hiring of head coaches.
The success of the Rooney Rule raises a troublesome question—why was it needed in the first place? Over 50 years since Jackie Robinson’s debut in Major League Baseball, one would think that sports, often considered one of the greatest meritocracies that our culture has to offer, would have corrected for racism long before the Rooney Rule was implemented.
Of course, Jackie Robinson was a player and not a coach. Especially considering the historically persistent bias against black quarterbacks, it seems that owners and general managers had absorbed the old stereotype that white people are the only ones who can be good leaders. In a world where rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III is not just the most exciting player in the NFL but also a team captain and the most charismatic leader to enter the league in years, and Mike Tomlin is a Super Bowl champion and one of the top head coaches in the league, this of course seems ridiculous.
And it is ridiculous—but people ran enormous business enterprises based on this bias, sacrificing millions of dollars’ worth of wins because of their inability to see that black coaches are just as good as white ones. This is where we can start drawing conclusions about more than just football. The NFL case study tells us that when it comes to race, profit motives are not enough for the private sector to be expected to treat minorities equally.
The policy implications are cloudier, beyond the confirmation that the Civil Rights Act was a great idea, whatever Rand Paul might say. As interesting as it would be to implement the Rooney Rule for CEO hiring in Fortune 500 companies, passing such a law could be tricky.
Direct affirmative action in the real world has produced some unintended consequences—for example, racial preferences in college admissions has arguably hurt minority students by putting them in academic contexts they were not prepared for. Of course, that is less a reflection on the students’ natural aptitude than the fact that many of them go to college straight from failing schools that ill-prepared them for the rigor of top universities, but regardless, this is a useful reminder that action has to be smart in addition to well-intentioned.
The main takeaway from the Rooney Rule is that even in today’s society, we have to keep remembering that racism—conscious or not—still exists. As a businessman, this can be treated as a moneymaking opportunity: by not having a bias against minorities (or, just as importantly, bias against women), one can hire the talent that other businesses miss. When it comes to hiring women, for example, a company that actually offered equal pay for equal work would rapidly get the most qualified applicants.
As a citizen, this means voting against politicians who trivialize racism and fight against anti-discrimination initiatives such as, most recently, the push for fair pay for women.
Oh—and by the way, college football has no equivalent of the Rooney Rule. The percentage of minority head coaches in the NCAA? Six percent.