The legacy of the man behind football’s Rooney Rule—requiring interviewing minority candidates—lives on in Silicon Valley

A football giant.
A football giant.
Image: AP Photo/Bob Leverone)
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Dan Rooney, who died yesterday at age 84, was the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team and former US ambassador to Ireland. His most lasting legacy, however, may be the mechanism for diversifying workplaces which bears his name: the Rooney Rule.

The Rooney Rule requires National Football League teams to interview at least one minority candidate when filling head coaching vacancies. First employed in 2003, it was devised as a way of hiring more minority coaches in a profession where almost 70% of the workforce is African American, but with just 6% minority head coaches at the time.

But while the rule was devised to solve a very niche problem —there are only 32 head coaching positions in the NFL—it’s caught on in other industries struggling to hire minorities and women, particularly in Silicon Valley. Facebook, Pinterest, Xerox, and Amazon have all adopted some version of the rule in recent years, a testament to the tech industry’s desire for perceived simple solutions to a long-standing frustrations.

Rooney, whose family has owned the Steelers since 1933, used his influence with the other NFL owners to push through the rule after the 2002 season, when teams fired two black head coaches and entered the season with just two teams headed by minorities. The idea behind the rule wasn’t just that teams would consider hiring minorities, but that the process of interviewing them enters their names into consideration for other teams.

The process worked for the Steelers, who in 2007 hired 34-year-old Mike Tomlin, previously an assistant coach for the Minnesota Vikings, to head Pittsburgh’s team; he delivered the city a Super Bowl title the following year. But the record for the NFL as a whole is decidedly mixed. The league will open the 2017 season with eight minority head coaches—four times more than in 2003, but still just a quarter of all teams. And significantly, the ranks of top assistant coaches—the proving grounds for future coaches —are overwhelmingly white, according to a 2016 ESPN report. Critics say the Rooney Rule allows team to tick a box saying they’re addressing diversity issues without any deeper commitment.

It’s too early to tell what impact the rule has had in Silicon Valley. The hiring of women and minorities is creeping up, but still lags the larger workforce, and the tech industry’s record of promoting minorities into leadership is dismal: According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, less than 1% of executives and managers at the top tech firms are African American.

In the world of tech, the Rooney Rule is a crude tool for a complex problem. But given how much time and money Silicon Valley has spent trying to solve their issue with equality, even a blunt instrument is worth trying.