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What The NFL Can Teach Congress About Hiring More Diverse Staffs

Although the new 115th Congress is the most racially diverse on record, its staff remains overwhelmingly white.1 As The Washington Post recently reported, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) is trying to change that — and he’s using the NFL’s “Rooney Rule” as a model for addressing the imbalance.

Established in 2003, the Rooney Rule requires NFL teams to interview at least one nonwhite candidate for any head coaching vacancy. It is an example of a “soft” affirmative action policy — that is, one that is designed to change the composition of the candidate pool, rather than change the criteria used in the hiring process. In this spirit, Schumer has urged his colleagues to ensure that at least one nonwhite applicant is considered for any open position. And if the NFL’s version is any guide, the policy should indeed help improve Congress’s hiring record.

In a recent study I published in the American Law and Economics Review, I found that the NFL has hired notably more nonwhite head coaches in the years since the Rooney Rule went into effect. Of course, that increase could reflect the influence of other social, cultural or institutional changes, rather than the impact of the rule itself. So to account for this possibility, I compared the change in hiring trends among NFL head coaches (who became subject to the Rooney Rule) with the change in hiring trends among similar groups that were not affected by the policy, such as NFL coordinators and NCAA head coaches. Those comparison groups show us what the NFL might look like without the Rooney Rule, since they’re affected by the same hard-to-observe forces that may have influenced hiring decisions both before and after the Rooney Rule took effect.

Using this technique, I found that a nonwhite candidate is about 20 percent more likely to fill an NFL head coaching vacancy during the Rooney era than before it, even after taking into account the general trend toward hiring more nonwhite candidates at all levels of coaching. In other words, the change can be traced directly to the Rooney Rule itself.

Although there are plenty of differences between hiring congressional staffers and hiring NFL head coaches, the two processes share some similarities. Both are influenced by capacity constraints, meaning that NFL franchises and congressional offices can only interview a certain number of candidates because they are working under a limited hiring timeline. Additionally, there is a large amount of “noise” during the candidate-selection process in both fields, since there are no agreed-upon criteria for choosing candidates and it’s impossible to determine the true quality of a given candidate.2 These similarities suggest that a Rooney Rule-style policy may work in other organizations. (In fact, Facebook recently implemented its own version of the rule in certain departments, suggesting that the company has hopes for its ability to translate to another industry.)

However, the Rooney Rule’s success is likely due in part to the fact that the NFL has been able to closely enforce it. For example, in 2003 the Detroit Lions’ then-president, Matt Millen, was fined $200,000 for failure to interview a nonwhite candidate for the team’s head-coaching vacancy. But when it comes to congressional staffing, there is currently no way for Schumer to force his colleagues to adopt and stick to a Rooney Rule-style hiring policy. The rule also cannot work unless nonwhite candidates are getting fair consideration and going through the same process as white candidates. The NFL has had to continually address teams’ temptation to fulfill the Rooney Rule’s requirements by conducting sham interviews instead of really searching for qualified nonwhite candidates. Finally, the hiring of an NFL head coach is a very public event that will be watched and commented on by reporters and fans alike, which helps maintain pressure to comply with the rule. Congressional offices, on the other hand, are not even required to publicly report the demographics of their staffs. So the positive effects of the Rooney Rule may not fully transfer to organizations that lack enforcement mechanisms.

Even so, my findings suggest that a Rooney Rule-style policy could help increase the diversity of congressional staff hires, particularly if Congress has the means and the will to enforce it. In addition to his efforts to require his colleagues to interview at least one nonwhite candidate for any staff vacancy, then, Schumer should also consider urging them to make two further commitments — to provide a fair and equitable evaluation process for these candidates, and to publicly report the demographics of their staffers.3 With this trio of policies in place, Congressional staffs might finally begin to match the diversity of the lawmakers they work for, and — more importantly — the people they represent.

CORRECTION (March 15, 11:30 a.m.): An earlier version of the chart in this article incorrectly described the types of NFL coaches shown. The chart shows head coaches and coordinators, not head coaches and assistants.

Footnotes

  1. Exact numbers are difficult to come by, but according to a report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, there were 336 top Senate staffers (chiefs of staff, legislative directors, communications directors, and staff directors) in December 2015, only 24 of whom were people of color: 12 Asian-Americans, 7 Latinos, 3 African-Americans, and 2 Native Americans.

  2. The Rooney Rule helps reduce this noise by requiring the franchise to take race into consideration when choosing candidates.

  3. Perhaps he could even move beyond “urging” and build a bipartisan effort to formalize such a rule and its accompanying enforcement mechanisms.

Cynthia (CC) DuBois is a Ph.D. candidate in Human Development and Social Policy at Northwestern University.

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