In the N.F.L. and at Big Companies, Diversity Playbooks Face Hurdles

The end of the National Football League’s regular season on Sunday triggered the start of two annual events: the playoffs, and the period when a wave of teams fire head coaches and general managers and start frenzied searches for their replacements.

The league has little control over the outcomes of the games. But over the past 20 years, the N.F.L. has tried, and often failed, to change the composition of the highest ranks in football-related jobs at every club.

For a league in which roughly 70 percent of N.F.L. players are people of color, it has been a source of embarrassment that the vast majority of coaches and executives have historically been white. To diversify teams’ leaderships ranks, the N.F.L. has largely relied on the Rooney Rule, named for a Pittsburgh Steelers owner and adopted in 2003, which required every team to interview at least one person of color when hiring a head coach or general manager.

Through expansions of the rule and other initiatives, the league and its teams have diversified assistant coaching ranks and top front-office positions, including team presidents. It has been less successful when it comes to head coaches; the N.F.L. began this season with just six minority head coaches among the 32, three of whom are Black.

“It’s tough when something has been done a certain way for so long and you’re just trying to break down those barriers,” said Troy Vincent, the N.F.L.’s executive vice president of football operations. He said the league’s overall progress encouraged him but, referring to head coaches, added: “I still have to live in the reality of what the numbers actually say. And the numbers still are not where we would like them to be.”

Still, the Rooney Rule has been the model across corporate America for companies that want to field more diverse slates of candidates, even as the aims of such initiatives are being fiercely debated in the public arena, most notably on college campuses. The recent resignation of Claudine Gay, a Black woman, as the president of Harvard was celebrated by opponents of D.E.I. initiatives and has fanned disagreement about whether they are the best way to increase diversity or can instead be counterproductive.


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