The Rooney Rule: Why isn’t the Premier League following the EFL’s lead?

The ‘Rooney Rule’, named after NFL diversity committee chairman Dan Rooney, who introduced a policy that clubs in the NFL would interview at least one BAME candidate for each head coach, has been adopted by the English Football League, as of June 2019. The EFL will apply the rule to all first-team vacancies, following a successful 18-month pilot, and will hope to bring about a greater diversity within English league football over the coming years. It has described the decision as “further commitment to improving equality in first team football.”

To be clear: the implementation of this policy does not guarantee a BAME candidate the job, or even an advantage in getting the job. What it does do, in theory, is afford BAME applicants the same opportunities as their white counterparts. For those BAME applicants that have the same levels of qualifications and experience, it gives them a platform to at least try and convince potential employers that they are the right person for the job. Regrettably, BAME coaches and managers need as much help as they can get.

The stats don’t lie

Of the 92 clubs in England’s top 4 divisions, only 4 are headed by BAME managers: a truly pathetic statistic. Yet in the Premier League, BAME players now account for over 1/3 of the total number of players. The England National team too, has a large contingent of BAME players which has been growing quickly each decade. In the recent 3-1 Nations League defeat to the Netherlands, 5 out of the starting 11 players were black or mixed-race. Despite this, the league’s only black manager, Chris Hughton was recently fired by Brighton. So how can it be that such a large pool of BAME players are not translating into coaches and managers in the top-flight?


One theory is that the number of BAME coaches who have the appropriate qualifications to be considered for high-profile roles is still disproportionately low. Quite simply, when considering the coaching system as a pyramid, there are not sufficient numbers of BAME individuals who hold the relevant coaching badges to translate into greater representation higher up the footballing pyramid. Surely then, even more reason to invest in young BAME coaches, to ensure that the relevant pathways are as open to them as to a young coach/manager that is white.

Even if you are convinced by the argument that this is simply a numbers game, and that there are not enough qualified BAME coaches at this moment in time, it’s hard to square-off that this is the only reason for these depressing statistics. Perhaps the current situation is more of a reflection on society in general, and not just the football fraternity?

Unconscious bias

One of the biggest arguments that those against the ‘Rooney rule’ espouse, is that BAME applicants already have the same opportunities as everyone else. They argue that there are no job adverts that specifically prohibit a person with a particular set of characteristics being able to apply for that job. Now of course that’s the case – because it would be illegal under equality law for starters; but it doesn’t pay enough attention to the undeniable practice of unconscious bias taking place that is disadvantaging BAME coaches and managers, even if we assume that they are afforded the same opportunities.

Think about how quickly you make a decision about who to sit next to on the bus, or share a table with in a café, or cross the road to avoid. Are you even aware that you are making a decision? We process a person’s characteristics such as ethnicity, gender, age and disability before we even know we’ve done it. At the same time we also link that person to all the supposed ‘knowledge’ we have of the category, with which have labelled them. The stereotypes, societal assumptions and personal experiences that have framed the category become linked to the individual. Sometimes this can cause guilt by association.


This is because our unconscious thoughts and interpretations happen much quicker than our conscious ones. Typically they take place below the level of consciousness, about 250 milliseconds before our conscious processes engage. Our brains make short cuts and assumptions on our behalf based on our cultural environment, stereotypes and personal experiences. These shortcuts impact on how we view and interpret people. Crucially, this leads us to make decisions based on stereotypes and cultural norms, and not based on evidence and sound rationale.

So, by definition, we are often not even aware that we are performing this bias; which is why it is so difficult to tackle, and why it is so important to actively introduce fail-safes into recruitment processes to counteract these biases, where possible. Unconscious bias is not malicious, as it is not deliberate on the part of the perpertrator, but it does have serious negative ramifications for those on the receiving end. It should also be noted that the great majority of football clubs are run by white people. Would the situation change if most clubs had black owners, chairmen and boards of directors? Who knows, but it would be hard to imagine it wouldn’t change to some degree.

Other sectors leading the way 

Higher Education

Although the Premier League is a microcosm in itself, it can, and should, learn lessons from policy implementation from other sectors. For example, there has long been a media focus on the lack of diversity represented at UK universities generally; but particularly at the most prestigious institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge. Rightly so, because until recently the proportion of their intakes that were BAME was shamefully low. However, after years of investment in the ‘widening participation’ agenda, and targeted outreach activity in specific communities, these figures are improving.


In 2014, the proportion of Oxford University’s intake that were BAME was 13.6%. Four years later, and that figure now stands at 18.3%. Whilst it is still significantly lower than the average percentage intake of BME students nationally, which stands at 25.6%, it is at least more reflective of the general UK population. Other institutions, such as Bradford and Aston Universities, have a BAME representation of nearly 3/4 of their total intake.

One of the leverages that universities have used to improve the numbers of BAME students entering higher education is the use of contextualised admissions: the use of socio-economic data, and protected characteristics in decision-making. In many ways, this isn’t dissimilar to the Rooney Rule that the EFL are about to employ – in that ethnicity is a data-set that will be considered, when deciding who to interview/offer a job to.


This time last year, the BBC announced action to boost the number of BAME staff within the corporation. This followed a 2-year report into how the organisation could better ensure a more diverse workforce, that better reflected the general population. In followed a concerted effort from the BBC to achieve these aims which had lead to a modest 1.7% rise in BAME employees between 2015 and 2018.


It acknowledged that it could still do much more, and committed to a set of recommendations including cultural awareness training for all managers, a significant increase in BAME representation on interview panels, and leadership programmes having a bigger represenation from BAME individuals. Most crucially, the report recommended a policy that ensures shortlists for all jobs at Band E (editor/manager level) and above include at least one BAME person. There you have it – the BBC has in effect, introduced the Rooney Rule for a large chunk of it’s jobs already.

Although it’s yet to be seen whether these changes will make a significant impact on BBC BAME employee figures, it should be assumed that the buy-in from the very top of the organisation is likely to help deliver an improvement in equality and diversity, to some extent.

Follow the leader

Even staunch advocates of the implementation of various forms of ‘positive discrimination’ or other such policies such as the Rooney Rule, would admit that it’s not perfect. Furthermore, they would certainly concede that it alone, is only a very small part of the puzzle in addressing the shabby statistics around BAME coaches in the upper-echelons of English football.

Remember – this policy only guarantees an interview; not a job role, and so it is plausible that not very much will change as a result of it. For the forseeable future at least, the relatively small pool of BAME coaches is likely to produce relatively small numbers of coaches at the highest level. As we know, managerial experience has a big part to play in recruitment of managers and coaches and so BAME coaches are also up against history, where there have been so few opportunities, they haven’t been able to demonstrate what they can do. It’s right and proper to acknowledge that this issue is multi-faceted and not simply about race or other characteristics.

Nevertheless, adopting the Rooney Rule would be a good starting point for the Premier League and something to build on whilst other inventive policies are formulated in years to come. It would demonstrate a commitment to helping BAME coaches and managers as much as can be as reasonably expected; without patronising them. Statistically at the very least, the current state of affairs is not a good reflection on the contribution that BAME individuals make to the greatest league in the world. In many ways, what does the Premier League have to lose by following the EFL’s lead?


Unconscious bias, overt racism, lack of opportunities – these are not unique to football; they are societal problems. While attempts to address them have been made in football, it is hard to see things improving dramatically for BAME folk whilst society still wrestles with how to best abolish these centuries-old practices. It will take a concerted effort from the very top; and the Premier League, as a behemoth global product, surely has to step up to the mark and do whatever it can, to address the appalling disparity between its number of BAME players and BAME coaches currently plying their trade in its ranks.

If, as some argue, things are left to their own devices, it is highly likely that it would take many decades for BAME coach and manager statistics to more accurately reflect the playing statistics and those of wider society. If we think that is acceptable, then we are doing a disservice to future generations of talented BAME professionals who might not otherwise get the opportunities that they deserve. If the Premier League is as committed to tackling racism and inequality within its ranks as it professes, it should demonstrate it, by following the EFL’s lead at the very least. It would represent a small step in the right direction.



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