Study Analyzes NFL Diversity

A new study published and co-authored by Chris Rider, assistant professor of strategy at the McDonough School of Business, found that racial diversity is drastically lacking among National Football League head coaches.

The new research found that white coaches are more than twice as likely to get promoted to head coach than minority coaches, even if they have equivalent experience, equivalent performance and identical career paths. The study was co-authored by James B. Wade, professor of strategy and leadership at The George Washington University, Anand Swaminathan, professor of organization and management at Emory University Goizueta Business School and Andreas Schwab, associate professor at Iowa State University.

According to Rider, the researchers did not expect to find such telling results.

“We were surprised by the magnitude; it’s very large,” Rider said.

While previous research has shown that leaders of large business organizations are disproportionately white, the authors were interested in studying this trend in a controlled setting. Rider and his co-authors chose to study the NFL because of its hierarchical structure and the clear, high standard of performance, allowing the researchers to more easily follow the career path of an NFL coach and to control for non-racial factors.

Rider and his co-authors found that white coaches may have an advantage over minority coaches because minority candidates are often given entry-level positions that provide little opportunity for upward mobility when they start working for the NFL. In the past, over 70 percent of NFL head coach positions have been filled by an offensive or defensive coordinator, while lower ranked positions like running back coaches or defensive line coaches rarely become head coaches.

The Rooney Rule, established in 2003, requires all NFL organizations to interview at least one minority candidate when hiring a new head coach. Although the number of minority head coaches has increased, Rider and his co-authors could not clearly conclude whether or not the Rooney Rule has been effective in increasing the diversity among NFL head coaches.

“The lesson for us is that any organization that wants to implement a Rooney Rule-style intervention has to be very specific about what they would expect if they don’t do this, what the objective is, and what the current levels are,” Rider said. “Absent that information, you’re going to be debating for years to come whether or not it worked.”

Rider said more organizations should turn to the NFL as an example when deciding how to best diversify.

“My co-authors and I believe that the NFL is at the forefront of acknowledging and addressing racial disparity,” Rider said. “The Rooney Rule is considered a model for many organizations to follow. We think that other organizations and industries might want to look to the NFL. … But in implementing these kinds of interventions, the most important thing, from our perspective, is to establish an expectation for what would have happened if you don’t implement this.”

However, according to Rider, diversification methods would be more effective if they encompassed the whole organization, and were not just concentrated on the top positions.

“Our research suggests that it’s going to be even more effective if it’s accompanied by lower level interventions that raise the rate at which minorities are not only included on the interview list, but also in the candidate pool,” Rider said.

Jake Moran (SFS ’19), a longtime NFL fan, said that that the NFL still has a long way to go in achieving diversity among its coaches. According to USA Today, only 17 non-white candidates were chosen to be head coaches between 1963 and 2012, while 124 white head coaches were hired.

“It’s getting more diverse as time goes on, but I still wouldn’t consider it diverse,” Moran said. “For example, an African American didn’t head coach the Super Bowl until Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith in 2007. The [Buffalo] Bills just hired the first full-time female coach so teams are making progress.”

Robert Brook (MSB ‘18), a New England Patriots fan, said it is surprising that although the diversity of players in the NFL has increased in recent years, diversity still lacks among NFL head coaches.

“In a league that is increasingly more diverse that trend has not been met with an increasingly diverse hiring of head coaches … Whether it is a calculated decision or not, it is simply hard to ignore the fact that all too often African American candidates who are perfectly qualified for the job are looked over in the favor of white coaches,” Brook said.

 

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