Opinion | The NFL’s Rooney Rule can help diversify our governments


Joe Rimkus Jr/Miami Herald/MCT

The Rooney Rule, adopted by the NFL in 2003, is named after late former Steelers owner, Dan Rooney (right).

By Kartik Kannan, For The Pitt News

Every American history class we have taken from elementary school to college has taught us that our nation was created on the principle of Americans selecting representatives to advocate for their rights and freedoms in our government. The Constitution begins with the line, “We the people, in order to form a more perfect Union,” and it was from this idea that the concept of representative democracy exists in the United States today.

But after 244 years, our democracy does not seem to truly reflect the people it was designed to represent. Currently, 78% of the members of Congress are non-Hispanic whites, with 24% of the body’s representatives identifying as female. These figures fail to line up with current demographics in the United States, as figures from the United States Census show that about 60.1% of Americans identify as white alone, with just over half of Americans identifying as female. This discrepancy is not just limited to Congress. In fact, the majority of elected governing boards in the United States, from local school boards to state governments, do not have the same demographic makeup as the populations they represent.

In principle, the lack of diversity does not seem to be of much concern to the average American — after all, if the people had the opportunity to elect these officials, why does it matter if the candidates identify similarly to their population? But the reality of politics in the United States is that without diversity in government, discriminatory policies are often passed that make life for minority groups increasingly treacherous. Had there been proportional representation by race or ethnicity in American government throughout history, perhaps we would not have seen the enactment of laws targeting Black people, such as the Black Codes or the Jim Crow laws, or laws aimed at discriminating against immigrants, such as the Espionage and Sedition acts.

Today, under a federal government headed by an outspoken racist and misogynist, minority groups in the United States face a constant uphill battle toward pursuing the rights of life and liberty that were promised to them under the Constitution. This brings up the next question — what can we do to make our democracy truly representative? An unlikely source has presented the answer — the NFL.

The NFL instituted a new policy in 2003 called the Rooney Rule, which got its name from Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney’s efforts to make the personnel behind professional football more diverse. In its current form, the Rooney Rule states that NFL teams must interview a minimum number of minority candidates for head coaches, coordinator and senior football operations and general manager jobs. The rule also requires teams to interview minority and female candidates for senior-level positions within NFL teams and the league’s main offices. The rule caused massive changes within the league, as the number of minority team officials grew exponentially, and women finally had the chance to hone their trade in the so-called man’s sport.

While some controversy surrounded the implementation of the Rooney Rule, such as teams conducting short pseudo interviews with “token” minority candidates in order to satisfy the policy, it has ultimately allowed the NFL to experience the most diverse climate in its history. If the NFL, which for years has struggled to embrace the norms of social justice, can serve as the benchmark for increasing diversity in the workforce, then the public needs to heed this example and use the Rooney Rule to bring the changes needed to make our governments truly representational.

In short, a hybrid version of the policy, coupled with changes to electoral procedures, could greatly improve the political landscape of the United States. Using figures from the most recent census, local and state election boards could mandate that the two major political parties, as well as any third party that received more than 5% of the vote in the last election, field enough candidates in their respective primary elections to match “significant” demographics within a composite population.

If we say a “significant” percentage is 10% of the population, then for the next Pennsylvania Senate election, each party would have to field at least one minority candidate for every three white candidates and at least one female candidate for every male candidate. Running these candidates would at a minimum ensure equal representation along ethnic, racial and gender lines for the primary elections, with the chance of a nonwhite male candidate being nominated for and then elected in the general election significantly higher. Furthermore, unlike the Rooney Rule, the use of “token candidates” cannot occur, because there is a possibility of said candidates actually being elected and holding office.

While drastic, changing the American electoral system in order to increase diversity is a necessary stepping stone toward ensuring equality for all. In a time when typically disenfranchised groups in the United States are being stripped of their rights as Americans, whether it be through women losing access to abortions, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients having their paths to citizenship cut off and Black people experiencing legalized institutional racism, it is imperative that diversity enters our government and looks out for all Americans, not just white males.

The government Abraham Lincoln once discussed, one that was “of the people, by the people and for the people,” cannot exist unless the people are properly represented, and as we have seen the past four years, a government that does not represent the people is one that is a threat to minorities, the disenfranchised and democracy in general.

Kartik Kannan writes primarily about politics and race in the United States. You can contact Kartik at [email protected].