NFL extends “Rooney Rule” to women

I’ve found that big corporations sometimes respond to sustained attacks and bad publicity by trying to establish their liberal bona fides. They might launch an aggressive affirmative action program for hiring and/or for the selection of vendors (such as outside legal counsel). Or they might embrace a big liberal agenda item such as criminal justice reform. The idea is to show that they’re really not bad guys after all. Or maybe it’s just an attempt to ward off evil spirits.

Either way, the strategy is rarely successful.

The NFL is under sustained attack on multiple fronts — brain injuries and domestic violence being the two leading areas of focus. Some folks apparently are considering whether the two are connected.

It is in this context that I view the NFL’s decision to extend the “Rooney Rule” to women seeking executive positions. The Rooney Rule has long required that teams interview at least one minority candidate for each open coaching position. Now, the league is going to apply the rule to women when it comes to filling all executive positions.

Women are a key element of the NFL’s fan base. Women are said to make up 35 to 45 percent of NFL fans.

But are female football fans concerned that not enough women hold executive jobs in the league? Probably not. To the extent they have concerns about football, I imagine they center around the debilitating injuries suffered by players, the violence players sometimes inflict with women, and the league’s past leniency towards offenders. (The same things men are probably concerned about)

Thus, I see the extension of the Rooney Rule to women as an attempt to gain good will, not an attempt to pacify female football fans upset by the League’s hiring and promotion practices.

The roll-out suggests that this is the case. Commissioner Roger Goodell announced the decision in opening remarks at the NFL Women’s Summit, where roughly 250 men and women associated with the league gathered to listen to a slate of speakers on issues affecting women in sports. Billie Jean King and Condollezza Rice were there and applauded the move. It has already generated plenty of good publicity.

The league would argue that its move is designed to redress an actual problem — the unfair exclusion of women from exclusive positions. This argument depends on two propositions: first, that such a problem actually exists; second, that the Rooney Rule is reasonably calculated to help fix it.

I’m not in a position to assess either proposition (though I have my doubts about the second one). Thus, I can’t rule out that this is a good faith response to a real problem.

But the timing is suspicious. The NFL has a legal obligation not to discriminate on the basis of gender. If the league has been unfairly excluding women from executive positions, one would have expected it to address the problem years ago. Why wait until now?

The answer may be that the NFL and its commissioner feel under siege. They could use good publicity of the sort the extension of the Rooney rule (whether needed and useful or not) is likely to generate. And given Goodell’s run of bad luck (or bad something) a desire to ward off evil spirits would be understandable.