The Rooney Rule’s perception problem

On 29 September 2013, two black coaches proudly led their teams out on to the hallowed turf of Wembley Stadium. The colour of the two coaches’ skin played little part in the pre match build up. Incredibly this was the first time Wembley experienced two black head coaches going head to head.

Even more incredible was that it was part of the “International Series” of the National Football League (NFL) which saw Leslie Frazier, of the Minnesota Vikings, lead his team to victory over Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers. This highlighted the success of the Rooney rule and provided a damning indictment of opportunities for black or minority ethnicity (BME) coaches in English football.


Since that day very little has changed. Five out of 92 professional football clubs in England currently employ a BME manager (4.6%) despite around 25-30% of professional players coming from this demographic, it appears that the lack of BME representation in positions of authority within football is a problem that is important enough to be debated every slow news week but not so important as to require changes of any substance.

The most recent development involved the PFA introducing a ‘Ready list’. This was a list of 30 qualified black coaches supplied to professional teams. A list of names. Nothing more. Its feebleness encapsulates the difficulty of introducing any such regulations. The organizations capable of change want to help but since the issue is so complex and remains socially volatile, they are tip toeing around significant change.

In American Football, significant change came in 2003. Dan Rooney introduced a proposal to make it compulsory for teams to interview at least one minority candidate for available coaching positions. The “Rooney Rule” was met with criticism concerning unfairness towards Caucasian coaches, tokenism on behalf of the minority candidates and fear that under qualified coaches would dilute the quality of the league.

Yet from 2007 to 2011 five out of ten head coaches in the Super Bowl were black. Any concerns over token appointments or lack of quality quickly evaporated. The best coaches were getting jobs, not just the best white coaches.

The single greatest barrier to the introduction of a similar policy in English football is misunderstanding. The confusion sparks an initial defensive reaction identical to that faced in America; that any form of positive discrimination is discrimination nonetheless.

Jose Mourinho disagrees that there is a race problem in English football:

Football is not stupid to close the doors to top people. If you are top, you are top.

Leaving aside the eyebrow raising assertion that football is not stupid, his argument encapsulates one of the main problems outlined above; a lack of understanding of the Rooney rule leading to a defensive attitude. Self protection is put above all else, if it is acknowledged that BME coaches are prejudiced then the status quo may require reform.

This fear can be alleviated by simply explaining how the rule would work. It is not a quota by any means, if chairmen deem that a black candidate is not of sufficient standard then they will not get the job. Simple as that. White coaches will not be denied an interview.

If a chairman has five coaches under consideration who are all white, then he must arrange for an additional interview for a BME candidate. This would only require a chairman to sacrifice the amount of time it takes to interview an additional candidate; the risk is small while the reward is potentially huge.

These opportunities are essential because they expose chairmen to perennially overlooked BME coaches. This is not overt racism; it is simply following what has gone before. Think about it, if someone asked you to name the best British managers of all time who would you go for? Ferguson, Clough, Shankly are the archetypal successful British managers.

This is why chairmen, with pressure to succeed at an all-time high, go for what they know. White managers look the part, often despite past failure, they offer a level of superficial comfort. Someone like him has been successful in the past, why not again? There are very few examples of BME coaches consistently being successful, or even just being there, and therefore their employment represents an unknown, an unnecessary risk.


Caucasian coaches would not suffer discrimination but there are two sides to the coin when it comes to misinterpreting the Rooney rule; the second is stigma. It is understandable that a BME candidate might reject the rule for this reason.  Ex professionals such as Titus Bramble disagree with assistance for BME coaches:

I think it’s disgraceful that someone might be shortlisted for the job just because of their skin colour.

Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, current Burton Albion manager, agrees:

I wouldn’t want to be waiting for an interview thinking they only asked me because I was black. I want to know they asked me because they think I can do the job.

However the logic used here is about as solid as Bramble’s defending. The Rooney rule gives opportunities, it would not result in jobs being handed out in order to satisfy a quota or generate positive PR and this is the crux of the confusion. Ex-pro Michael Johnson has garnered every major coaching qualification yet isn’t considered for any roles that come up,

I can’t get any more qualified. But I’ve been out of football work for three years…I’ve sent over 30 CVs of and got two interviews.

BME coaches need an opening to show their skills in an interview setting, this provides vital experience. An impressive interview may result in an enhanced reputation or even a different position with the team.

Todd Bowles exemplifies this necessity. He was interviewed by the Philadelphia Eagles in January 2012 for the job of secondary coach and instantly made an impression on head coach Andy Reid:

I’ve never interviewed anybody as good as that.

Soon after he was promoted to defensive coordinator. Bowles had honed his interview skills through numerous unsuccessful attempts and thrived so much in the same role in Arizona that he will enter the 2015 season as the New York Jets head coach. It is fair to wonder how many talents likes Bowles are being ignored in England.

What is the worst case scenario for the application of a change like the Rooney Rule? That black managers embarrass themselves to such an extent that it sets inclusion back even further? There appears to be enough white managers embarrassing themselves on a weekly basis to alleviate such angst.

Football’s governing bodies must ask themselves; what’s the worst that could happen? Are we afraid of Paul Ince signing a player because he rang him and explained he was George Weah’s cousin?  What about giving Falcao the GDP of Albania to do his best Mr.Bean impression?

These examples show that white managers have been making their job look more difficult than it has to be for years. The arguments against a Rooney Rule in English football are based on ignorance of what it provides and are far outweighed by the reward it would bring.

Until something similar is introduced we should expect the managerial merry-go-round to come with a 5% minorities limit.

The Author

Liam Maguire

Trainee solicitor currently studying in Belfast with a Masters in Sports Law and former Northern Ireland Cup Under-11 Runner up. Man United fan and a relapsed Football Manager addict.

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