Monday, January 11, 2010

Affirmative Action Done Right: Rooney Rule in the NFL

From John to a group of friends:

"I don't know if any of you actually follow the NFL, but the Seahawks and the Redskins are both in hot water (from some commentators, at least) for violating the spirit of the Rooney Rule. It requires that teams hiring front-office (i.e., head coach and general manager) positions interview at least one qualified minority candidate before they make a decision. I've been a huge fan of the rule, both for its effects (e.g., Mike Tomlin and the Steelers) and for the statement it makes about the NFL. With a hugely disproportionate number of minority players and fans, and yet almost no minorities in management positions, the league has had race issues for a long time. Especially with a closed ownership system (not anyone can buy an NFL team) that is dominated by old white men, and closed hiring systems for these management positions (there are no objective criteria for evaluating the best coach or GM), no one was really questioning who was hired or why there was such an enormous race gap in these hiring processes. And now, with black coaches running some of the best teams in the league (Steelers, Colts), it's opening opportunities elsewhere by encouraging teams to hire outside the predominantly white cadre of recycled head coaches and coordinators from other teams.

This seems like a fantastic setup for an affirmative action-type program. With no legislation on whom to hire, only the most frothy-mouthed of the Angry White Men can complain about official intervention on behalf of minorities. It puts no significant burden on teams except to interview a reasonably-sized sample of candidates, which, frankly, is good business practice anyway, especially in an industry like the NFL. And it's had proven results: at least 3 minority coaches who were interviewed to comply with the Rooney Rule have been hired because they were the best people for the job, and with the exception of Jim Caldwell of the Colts, they were people who wouldn't have even gotten interviews without the Rooney Rule in place. And again, those coaches have racked up 2 Super Bowls and are in contention for a third -- in the last six seasons. Not a bad track record.

Thoughts? Especially about extending this model to other kinds of employment, maybe academic positions (openings that solicit applications), upper-level management, etc?"

My response:
While I would question the idea that Tomlin and Smith wouldn't have gotten an interview in the first place, given that Tomlin was, I believe, the only person seriously considered for the Steelers job (and Rooney is the owner of the Steelers, by the way, so arguing he wouldn't interview a minority when he is the reason minorities are interviewed is a bit strange) and Smith was the favorite for the Bears job from day one, I think it's a decent point. There have certainly been other examples where a minority who wouldn't have been considered got hired - I wouldn't be surprised if Raheem Morris fell into that category, given how young he is, though I didn't follow last year's Tampa Bay interview process that well.

The Rooney Rule gets around my biggest objections to the hiring quota. I object pretty strongly to the "hiring quota" form of affirmative action, for three reasons:

1. It permanently institutionalizes race-based decision making for hiring, when we're in a country which expressly states that race is not a legitimate qualification or disqualification for jobs. It's the distinction between individuals being equal on the basis of race and racial groups being equal. The US aspires to the former camp, where every individual is treated independently of their race. This has intuitive benefits for justice.

2. It lets people grow accustomed to thinking that minorities are less qualified than they are. If majority college kids are always surrounded by minorities who had worse entrance statistics than they did, it's a safe bet they'll start thinking of minorities as worse students, when they wouldn't have thought so otherwise. It's the very common "I support black doctors but if I personally need a surgeon, it had better be a white or Asian surgeon because they really 'deserved' to be there" situation that has to be overcome if we're going to have an equal society, and cannot be overcome as long as AA influences hiring decisions based on race.

3. In certain bizarre situations, it can be used to exclude people. Christians were "affirmative actioned" into the Ivy League in the 30s and 40s because too many Jews were getting in for the liking of the elite. When that was found to be illegal, athletic scholarships were invented. Not joking. If you think this is ridiculous today, imagine your reaction if teams were told that they needed to have one white point guard or cornerback on their roster. That hardly seems like an "including whites" condition; it's far more likely a "we can't have ALL blacks!" situation.

The Rooney Rule avoids all three of these issues, in most cases. Unlike jobs, there's rarely, if ever, a limited number of interview spots, so nobody's getting an unfair advantage or disadvantage - you still have to be the best candidate on a race-neutral basis to get the job (2 and 3), and a good hiring process can still treat every candidate equally when deciding who to take (1).

The only problem you run into (which occasionally happens in the NFL but not often) is when additional interviews are costly - either from a confidentiality perspective, a speed one or a monetary one. This type of situation is the exception, not the rule. That's also easily addressed with a situation where "if you're interviewing more than one/two/three people, one of them must be a qualified minority candidate." That also has the benefit of not stringing people along just for dog-and-pony's sake when you only intend to seriously interview one person. The NFL example I'd give would be the Shanahan hiring. For those of you who don't know, Shanahan may be second only to Bill Belichick in terms of his NFL coaching pedigree. I don't care who else they interviewed, Shanahan was getting that Redskins job. Speed was important, both so that Shanahan didn't go elsewhere (the Bills were trying hard, as were other undisclosed teams) and so that they would have time to start planning for next year before free agency and the draft. It may not be particularly good for anyone involved to force the Redskins to interview someone else when their mind was made up before any interviews started. The Redskins, with a deep-pocketed owner, probably realized this, which is why they proceeded with the hiring despite not interviewing minorities, because the value of the fine they will probably receive is a lot less than the opportunity cost of Shanahan and Shanahan's preparation for free agency. This is a minor point, however, and I imagine there aren't too many places it comes into play in the real world.

You also run into issues when you try and ensure that qualified candidates exist in multiple levels of a career ladder, but I guess that's remedied by the fact that an interview isn't the same as a hire.

It's generally not a bad policy, esp for hiring one person or very small numbers of people. It'd be harder to implement in things like college admissions because you're filling so many slots that it's no longer about individuals you're admitting - you're admitting a pool which can be described with statistics, whereas one head coach is one head coach. A large pool invites accusations of racism if the percentages interviewed and percentages admitted drastically differ. I don't know that there's an easy way to solve this, except by perhaps a race-blind admissions policy (except even there, candidates can signal race with activities to admissions officers who may be biased for or against them).
More from John: "Tomlin came from outside as a dark-horse candidate - Ken Whisenhunt, then the Steelers' OC, was the leading candidate until Tomlin interviewed. It's not that Rooney wouldn't have interviewed a minority, it's that the Steelers couldn't just promote from inside without interviewing someone else first. They opened the interview round, and that got them Tomlin and 2 Super Bowls with him.
Anyway, the conflation of the Rooney Rule with quota-based affirmative action is the whole reason the Rooney Rule gets such vitriol from the Angry White Man crowd. Practically speaking, there are zero costs to an extra interview, and you only have to spring for an extra slot in the event that you're not interviewing any qualified minorities anyway. One would hope, given the predominance of minorities in the NFL, that at least some reasonable sample of candidates would include a minority interviewee in the first place. But I digress.
I have no data to back this up (yet), but I have my suspicions about exclusive, highly-specialized, heavily-recycled jobs like NFL head coaching (or many kinds of CEOs/business executives, big-firm lawyers, academics) would benefit from a Rooney Rule. Because those circles are so incestuous to begin with, even people who are well-intentioned and not overtly racist may not know or be exposed to the qualified minority candidates out there. It's the problem of all old-boys' networks. The Rooney Rule says -- give someone a chance to interview, listen to someone who you might not have even considered before, and see what happens. Give them a chance to show their talent. And in several cases so far, giving someone a shot to break into that circle has resulted in a net positive for everyone. When you look at guys like Tony Dungy, probably the only coach of the last decade that I'd put on par with Bill Belichick, you wonder what took everyone so long. He fought for more than two decades to get respect in the league, and when the Colts gave him a chance, they almost rivaled the Patriots for team of the decade.
My sense is that a lot of other professions are like that. Once minorities break into the old boys' network, the system will probably be self-correcting. Even without people who are overtly racist, you can still get outcomes which systematically discriminate against minorities. (Anyone familiar with the agent-based model of racial segregation done by Schelling?) Once you expose more of the predominantly white decisionmakers to minority candidates by giving them a chance to show what they can do in an interview (for any position of this type, NFL coaches, academics, CEOs), you mitigate the hiring-from-a-limited-pool problem that causes this issue in the first place."
edit: From Sarah: "One small note though - affirmative action isn't synonymous with quotas. It could simply be a policy that, if we're interviewing two candidates with similar qualifications, we'll give the tip to a minority candidate. Also, your point about it being used against minorities doesn't really stand because affirmative action is usually defined as an extra nudge for minorities who are traditionally disadvantaged."
my response: "well, that still has the problem that you're institutionalizing race as a factor in decision making. Also, unless they're IDENTICAL, which is rare in the real world, then you're not really "tipping", as much as "influencing". It's not really an improvement in type, just in magnitude.

I'll also mention that affirmative action, as I used it there, is the policy of either a) giving members of one ethnic, racial or religious group a bonus or penalty for being from that group, or b) setting a quota for the percentage of acceptances that need to be of a certain race or religion. They're implicitly the same thing, because they both have in mind an idea of what an appropriate number of minorities is, and then either explicitly or implicitly force the system to get there. Both of those can be used against minorities fairly easily. (either "1 of the 5 guards on your roster must be white" or "lets give white guards a 10 point ranking advantage because that should get us to about 20% white guards on the roster").

It can't be a ranking bonus (policy a) without a target percentage in mind, because it's completely indeterminable whether a bonus is necessary or how big to make the bonus unless you have an end-proportion in mind that you're not hitting.

If the definition of affirmative action is less specific than I thought, my bad. That was my definition of affirmative action, and thus my arguments apply to that definition."

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