- A frequent legal opponent of corporate diversity, equity and inclusion programs, America First Legal, has lined up a goliath for its next match in the legal arena: the National Football League. The conservative group alleges the NFL’s diversity hiring policy, the “Rooney Rule,” violates the Civil Rights Act.
- “Decades of case law have held that — no matter how well-intentioned — quotas and employment practices aimed at achieving racial ‘balancing’ are strictly prohibited,” the AFL said in its Feb. 6 filing with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
- The Rooney Rule was established in 2003, initially requiring teams to interview at least one diverse candidate before making a hire, and has since expanded to include more positions and interview requirements. The rule aims to increase the league’s pipeline of diverse coaches, general managers and executives.
American First Legal, a nonprofit led by former Trump advisor Stephen Miller, emerged as a common filer of complaints that target corporate, legal and educational DEI programs, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2023 ruling barring affirmative action in college admissions. AFL also took aim at two other NFL diversity programs aimed at increasing the number of women and minorities in the leadership pipeline: The Coach & Front Office Accelerator and the Mackie Development Program for officials.
AFL Senior Advisor Ian Prior argued in the filing that each of these programs constitute unlawful employment practices by including race and gender as a motivating factor for an employment practice. NFL teams looking to comply with the Rooney rule must “interview prospective coaches and executives, not because of their skill and hard work, but rather because of the color of their skin,” Prior said in a release.
“This process is not only insulting and condescending to prospective coaches who are merely interviewed to check a box, but it is also the exact kind of racial balancing that the Supreme Court of the United States has unequivocally denounced as illegal and anathema to equal protection under the law,” Prior added.
The firm asked the EEOC to investigate the NFL and its 32 teams over the policies. In a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the firm gives notices of the suit and alleges he has failed to ensure the league’s policies comply with civil rights laws and “controlling Supreme Court authorities.”
The lawsuit comes just a few days ahead of the Super Bowl. During a pre-Super Bowl press conference this week, Goodell said he thinks the rule is “still necessary” and sees the league keeping it in place for the “foreseeable future.”
“We want to show the benefits of looking at a diverse slate of candidates,” Goodell said Monday. “To be able to do that has benefited every one of our clubs, our legal office, our partners. I think people across the world in different industries have absolutely adopted this rule.”
There are hundreds of companies who created their own form of the Rooney Rule post-2003, according to The Washington Post.
The Rooney Rule was based on recommendations from the league’s Workplace Diversity Committee and named after the late Dan Rooney, the former head of the committee and owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, according to the league’s website. The rule came to include requirements for open general manager positions and executive jobs, like team president or other senior executives in 2009.
The rule’s initial interview quotas were expanded in 2021 and 2022. The first required teams to interview at least two external minority candidates in person for head coach or general manager positions and at least two external minority candidates — either in person or virtually — for any coordinator-level coaching positions. In 2022, the league modified the rule’s definition to include women candidates as a minority and now require at least one minority candidate to be interviewed for quarterbacks coach — where many head coaches have begun their careers.
AFL’s suit said the rule has not “significantly increased the percentage of minority coaches in the league,” and references a report from DeMaurice Smith, former head of the NFL Players Association — the league’s player union — that found some teams were holding sham meetings with minority candidates despite having already decided to hire a white candidate.
Despite upticks at various points, the number of minority head coaches was the same in the 2020 season as it was in 2003: three. However, the league had five minority head coaches this past season, and will have a record nine minority head coaches next season, with two coaching vacancies still remaining.
The league has shown much more growth at the general manager and executive level: the league had seven team presidents, including three women, and nine general managers who were from minority groups, as of 2023.
The league said it looks forward to responding to the complaint and believes its policies are “fully consistent with the law and with fundamental notions of fairness,” a spokesperson told Reuters.