Why the Rooney Rule won’t work in England



Chris Powell, manager of Huddersfield, is one of only two black managers in England’s 92 league football clubs. How can we change this?

Q: We’ve been hearing a lot about this Rooney Rule lately. What’s it all about?
A: The Rooney Rule was introduced by the National Football League (NFL) to address the shortage of African American head coaches in American football. The playing staff of most NFL teams was dominated by black players, yet there were so few head coaches, that it became an embarrassment. In 2003, Dan Rooney, the owner of Pittsburgh Steelers at the time, came up with the idea of stipulating that, when clubs interviewed candidates for head coach jobs, they should always include a black candidate on the short list.
Q: And did it work?
A: To a large degree, yes. It surprised me that there was little resistance from the clubs and, over time, African American head coaches began filtering through. So, while there were — and still are — critics, the results were evidence that it was effective.
Q: It sounds similar to the British Labour Party’s policy of including at least one woman on shortlists when they were considering political candidates to contest elections. That worked too. So why haven’t we already road-tested the Rooney Rule over here?
A: First of all, many people don’t think there is an underrepresentation of black managers in football over here. If you compare the handful of black managers with the number of black players, there is a problem. But, if you look at the picture in terms of the wider population, then the minority seems a reasonable reflection of the number of black people in British society generally. Second, the NFL is a much stronger organization than the Football Association and runs the league very strictly. Clubs are not allowed to negotiate their own sponsorship and kit deals and there is no transfer system; clubs recruit players through the yearly draft, which is strictly controlled. The amount of independence clubs have over here would be unthinkable in the US. This means that Premier League and Football League club owners would almost certainly resent the FA’s intrusion into what they regard as their business.
Q: But Uefa is imposing Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations, so that’s interference, isn’t it?
A: It is and, already, clubs are fighting it. I think FFP is a good idea and would, if implemented, prevent the perpetuation of a small elite of European clubs. But I fear it will face bitter resistance from club owners, who just don’t like being told how to spend their money. Similarly, I think they would resent being told whom to interview for managerial jobs.
Q: All the same, their arms could be twisted, couldn’t they?
A: I’m not sure. You can bet club owners would engage their legal teams to challenge the legality of the Rooney Rule. Even if they didn’t have the stomach for a legal fight, they could simply pay lip service and include a black candidate on short lists. This would be a form of tokenism.
Q: Surely, when managers are appointed, they are often approached privately and there aren’t interview panels as with regular jobs.
A: And that would also rankle: imagine telling club owners like Roman Abramovich or Sheik Mansour that they have to convene interview panels.
Q: If you don’t think the Rooney Rule would work, what would?
A: It depends whether the corporations that pour money into clubs think there is a problem or not. If the likes of Chevrolet, or Samsung or Emirates decided that there is genuinely an under-representation and don’t want their names associated with the traces of racism that this suggests, they could put pressure on the big clubs to try new initiatives. That would make a big difference because clubs will do anything rather than upset the corporations that feed them.
Q: So you’re saying a form of positive discrimination would be possible?
A: I think so, but I doubt if clubs would declare it openly. If, for example, Chevrolet, which has its headquarters in Detroit where 83% of the population is African American, decided United should take some action, my guess is that the club would respond. Chevrolet pays United £47 million per year to have its logo displayed on the players’ shirts.
Q: As usual, you think money talks in football, right?
A: No doubt about it. The FA will have no joy if it tries to push the Rooney Rule on clubs. But the sponsors with the big money can gently suggest a change and chances are it will happen. But the Rooney Rule, for all its effectiveness, would prove very unpopular with English club owners. They will please themselves no matter what the FA or anybody else decrees.
Q: Finally, I’m getting the impression that you don’t see this as a huge problem. Am I right?
A: I don’t see it as a monstrous problem because I don’t think football management is much of a career path for the vast majority of people. What’s the average reign of a football manager? Twelve months is the answer. Like sport itself, we tend to look at the conspicuously successful figures as typical. They’re anything but: football management is an inherently unstable, unpredictable and often precarious job. Maybe black players, when they’re approaching the end of their playing careers, look elsewhere rather than automatically switch to coaching or management. My guess is that they have their heads screwed on and are not queuing up to be managers. Perhaps the more pressing problem is the over-representation of black people in professional football: again, the small number of successful players disguises the dozens of thousands of other young people who plough all their energies into pursuing a career in football, only to have their hopes dashed. The high number of black players suggests that black people are finding alternative career opportunities harder to come by.

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