By Ellen McGirt
April 18, 2017

Today the world says goodbye to a hero of the gridiron and diversity.

Dan Rooney, the beloved owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team and former US ambassador to Ireland, is being laid to rest today in Oakland, PA. He died April 14th at age 84. Among the visiting mourners are President Barack Obama, former Attorney General Eric Holder; former Secretary of State John Kerry with his wife, Teresa Heinz; and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

Rooney was a giant to players and fans, but he is also widely known as the inventor of the Rooney Rule, a mechanism to diversify leadership ranks, which has been embraced by many tech companies. The Rooney Rule, first implemented in 2003, required NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate to fill head coaching vacancies. (Four years later, it was expanded to include general managers.) But in an industry where the workforce was more than 70% African American with only 6% representation in the coaching ranks, it offered a simple way to start leveling the playing field.

The Pittsburg Post Gazette interviewed John Wooten, the Cleveland Browns star, and NFL diversity champion about how the rule was born:

Chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a foundation promoting equality in coaching, scouting and front-office jobs for NFL teams, Mr. Wooten worked closely with Mr. Rooney to develop a league policy requiring teams to interview minority candidates. Eventually — and, as Mr. Wooten remembers, reluctantly — it would be named after an Irishman who grew up on the North Side.

“The thing about it is, he really didn’t want it to be called the Rooney Rule,” Mr. Wooten, 80, said over the phone from his Texas home on what he called a sorrowful evening for him and his organization. “I told him, ‘As much as I respect you, and will always do what you recommend, I don’t want to call it anything else but the Rooney Rule. Because you are the one that made it happen. You, and you alone, made it happen.’”

Years later, the rule has had mixed results. “The league will open the 2017 season with eight minority head coaches—four times more than in 2003, but still just a quarter of all teams,” reports Quartz. Much of the momentum tapered off by 2012. Critics say that because the rule sets no quotas, the rule can be easily viewed as check-mark that does little to change the game.

But the Rooney Rule has also become the darling of the tech world, to quote my colleague, Valentina Zarya. In 2015, after president Barack Obama asked tech companies to work on their diversity issues, seven companies, including Facebook, Pinterest, Intel, Amazon, and Xerox announced that they would be using a version of the Rooney Rule going forward. But, without specific mandates and public hiring targets, it’s a blunt tool that doesn’t do much – which is partly why the more transparent companies are with their diversity numbers and goals, the better off we will all be.

That said, The Rooney Rule was a great start, and in 2003, a bold act. It shone a light on a clear and present inequity and provided an important talking point for allies to begin conversations of their own. And Rooney himself was a profoundly decent guy, who ate lunch every day in the cafeteria with the secretaries, and shook hands with players after every game. He cared about their safety and it showed.

“Our business is the game; we’re not in this thing to make all the money in the world,” Rooney told sports writer Judy Battista, about his unwillingness to hitch the team to the tails of corporate sponsors. “I think some other teams still do things our way. But on this, we might be the last guy on the mountain.”

I sure hope not. The rule may have been an imperfect tool, but it was part of how Rooney ruled. And that may be the best legacy of all.

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