Saturday, February 5, 2011

On the Failure of Black Coaches in Professional Football . . . and its lessons for the rest of us

In their terrific book, Scorecasting, Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim argue that coaches in the National Football League are now finding less success than they once did.  And that's a good thing.  This seems counter-intuitive, but only at first glance. As they explain, black coaches had a very hard time finding head coaching jobs over ten years ago, but the black coaches who were hired performed far better than their white counterparts.  The NFL eventually recognized that the bar for black coaches was set much higher, and it also recognized the value of networks and connections in employment decisions.  This is when the league came up with the Rooney Rule.

Under this Rule, teams must interview at least one candidate of color before making a hiring decision, or else face a stiff fine from the commissioner's office.  This rule is important because hiring is not as meritocratic as conventional wisdom would presume.  It is about nertworks, about who you know and who knows you, about intangibles and things that cannot be measured easily.  It is about promise and the chance to show what one can do.  After the Rule was implemented in 2003, the ranks fo Black coaches grew from 2 in 2002 to 5 in 2005.  This was not about affirmative action, or the lowering of standards, but about meeting candidates and seeing something in them that face to face interviews could convey but face to face interviews could not.

So what happened after all these Black coaches got hired?  They did not perform all that qwll.  But as the authors explain, that is the point.  They were not treated any differently.  They were measured by their win-and-loss record, not by their race.  And while some of the Black coaches hired since the inception of the Rooney Rule have been fired, others have not, and new Black coaches have been hired since.  Two particular examples stand out: Mike Tomlin, coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Super Bowl winner; and Raheem Morris, coach of the Tampa Bay Bucaneers and candidate for coach of the year in 2011.  Without the rule, neither one of these coaches is anywhere near the pool of candidates interviewd for the very positions they occupy today.  But teams liked what they saw in the interview and hired them.  They are glad that they did.

The connection to the admissions and hiring debates could not be any clearer.  Candidates of color must wade through a system of networks that is foreign to them in order to even have a chance at a job for which, if given the chance, they would perform as well as any within the pool of available candidates.  Justice Sotomayor put it best, during her time at the University of Chicago:
I have spent my whole life with my knees knocking in every job. I did not get a law firm job I applied for because I was not adequately prepared, and no one in my family was there to teach me because they never had to do it. I did not make that mistake again. I have dealt with challenges in my life, other jobs I did not get, some of which I did not deserve to get, personal failures, and death and illness in my family. 
This is why the Rooney Rule is important, in the same way that affirmative action in general is important.  Outsiders need a chance to show that they can do the job as well as anybody else.

That is all anybody can ask for.  

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