Cyrus Mehri and the National Football League's Rooney Rule (2021)

by: Christopher I. Rider, Eileen Lopez Rider, Shonita Black

Publication Date: July 14, 2021
Length: 22 pages
Product ID#: 1-559-644

Core Disciplines: Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion, Ethics, Leadership/Organizational Behavior, Social Impact, Strategy & Management

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Teaching Note

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First Place Winner; DEI Global Case Writing Competition.
With Johnnie Cochran Jr. and John Wooten, civil rights attorney Cyrus Mehri formed the Fritz Pollard Alliance to advocate for National Football League coaches of color. Their efforts resulted in the NFL adopting the Rooney Rule prior to the 2003 NFL season in order to increase representation of coaches of color in the head coaching ranks. Subsequently, Mehri lobbied the NFL to improve the rule (e.g., applying it to additional coaching positions) while also working with (and against) companies to implement similar policies. The rule became one of the most prominent diversity initiatives in the United States, with employers such as Amazon, Facebook, the City of Pittsburgh, and the University of Texas System adopting variations of it.

In 2021, however, nearly two decades after the Rooney Rule’s implementation, the total number of NFL head coaches of color was three—the same number as in 2003, when the rule took effect. Frustratingly for Mehri and his colleagues, two top applicants of color—the two offensive coordinators in the most recent Super Bowl, Eric Bieniemy of Kansas City and Byron Leftwich of Tampa Bay—were passed over for all seven head coaching vacancies after the 2020 season. The ongoing debate about the rule’s effectiveness intersected with a pivotal moment in U.S. history. Corporate America, prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement and protests following the 2020 killing of George Floyd in police custody, had allocated billions of dollars to addressing racial injustice. Many more organizations would be considering personnel policies modeled after the Rooney Rule.

Was the Rooney Rule really a best practice in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I)? Had Mehri, through his consulting firm Working IDEAL, identified practices that might strengthen or replace the Rooney Rule?


Teaching Objectives

After reading and discussing the material, students should:

  • Appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of the most prominent diversity management practice in the United States today (i.e., the Rooney Rule).
  • Identify symbolic and substantive rationales for implementing policies based on the Rooney Rule in organizations.
  • Implement policies modeled after the Rooney Rule for effectiveness within organizations.
  • Develop alternative approaches to achieving diversity, equity and inclusion objectives.