The Rooney Rule: is football ‘ahead of the game’ in positive discrimination?

The Football League has announced that it is to implement its own version of the ‘Rooney Rule’ from the 2016/2017 season.

The Football League has announced that it is to implement its own version of the ‘Rooney Rule’ from the 2016/2017 season.

You may recall we wrote about this topic back in October 2014 when The Football league was giving consideration to implementing the Rooney Rule.

Well, it is now official. Each of the 72 clubs in The Football League will soon be required to interview at least one candidate who is either black, of Asian ethnicity or from another ethnic minority, when recruiting for a head coach or manger position.

For those not familiar with the Rooney Rule, the principle originated in the NFL in 2003 and was designed by Dan Rooney, Chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Its aim is to increase employment opportunities for managers and coaches from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (‘BAME’) background by promoting open and transparent recruitment practices.

Speaking about the decision to implement the Rooney Rule Greg Clarke, Chairman of The Football League, said:

“These proposals are intended to try and address… issues, which seem to disproportionately affect those from a BAME background, while at the same time leaving employment decisions solely in the hands of clubs, as it should always be for them to decide who they wish to employ.”

When you bear in mind that there were 47 manager dismissals in The Football League last year alone you can appreciate the impact this new rule may have on clubs and the managerial roundabout that will likely continue in the 2016/2017 season and beyond.

However, the announcement has not been met with unanimous approval from those likely to be affected. Chris Ramsey, Queens Park Rangers’ Head Coach and one of only six BAME managers in The Football League, gave the news a mixed review saying:

“This motion shows forward thinking and finally starts to bring football into the 21st century. Ultimately people want to be judged on merit when they get jobs – we don’t want tokenism in football. Nobody wants to be in a position where we better employ a black manager just to tick a box. I think that would be an insult in itself.”

The principal reaction across the board seems to be one of caution. Whilst many have recognised that there is an issue with the lack of BAME candidates, coaches and managers in The Football League there is serious concern that implementing these measures will lead to positive discrimination and BAME candidates being invited to ‘sham’ interviews for jobs simply to fill a quota.

Interestingly, the objections being raised in the UK now are remarkably similar to when the Rooney Rule was first proposed in the NFL.

It is interesting then to see the success the Rooney Rule has had across the pond. In the 80-year history of the NFL prior to the implementation of the Rooney Rule there were only six BAME head coaches. In the decade following its introduction 12 have been appointed.

In addition, the fears of tokenism have not been realised. The fact that BAME head coaches reached the Super Bowl with their teams each year from 2006 to 2013 would suggest they are being appointed due to their merits as coaches and not simply because of their race or ethnic origin.

Similar initiatives have also succeeded in addressing imbalances for candidates from traditionally disadvantaged groups. For example, an equality law was introduced in Norway in 2003 which required listed companies to have a board consisting of at least 40% female members. This was followed in a similar manner by France and Italy. These have all been considered a success despite initial objections.

It remains to be seen whether the Rooney Rule will succeed in The Football League or indeed whether the UK government will seek to introduce stricter positive action requirements of their own on other businesses (there is currently a voluntary target for FTSE 100 companies regarding female board members). It will also be interesting to see if it is ever challenged, whether the Rooney Rule is found to go beyond what is allowed by the positive action in recruitment provision in the Equality Act 2010, where such positive action is only allowed if the candidate favoured is as qualified as the one not given the equivalent opportunity (here that is to be interviewed).

What does seem certain is that the arrival of the Rooney Rule on British soil will be met with much scrutiny in the months and years to come. It may well just set the tone for future legislation. If this trailblazing scheme is successful, greater positive action in the recruitment process may be the ‘next step’ for equality law in the UK.

John McArdle is a paralegal in our Liverpool Employment, Pensions and Immigration Team (

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