The Rooney Rule and Our Democracy

Matthew Dowd
4 min readFeb 4, 2022

In the last 72 hours we have heard tons of discussion about the “Rooney Rule” in relation to former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores and his historic lawsuit filed on the first day of Black History Month. Let’s explore that in relation to the assaults on voting rights and democracy in America today.

The Rooney Rule was instituted in 2003 when there were three African-American head coaches in the NFL, a league where people of color are nearly three-fourths of all players. The rule was put into effect to try and solve the ongoing inequity in hiring practices in the NFL so as to give candidates of diversity a better opportunity at coaching in the NFL. The Rooney Rule is an NFL policy “requiring every team with a head coaching vacancy to interview at least one or more diverse candidates.”

Today, there is only one head coach in the NFL who is African-American. And Flores’ suit and evidence underlines the fact that in most cases the “rule” is a sham where it seems most owners only interview a diverse candidate in order to “check the box” to satisfy the minimum requirements of the Rooney Rule. In looking at any objective data and circumstances the rule is not working in accomplishing its original intent. And quite possibly is covering up for a more systemic problem that exists among NFL owners.

Today, it is my thought that many elected officials in the GOP and high-profile anchors of Fox News and other right-wing platforms look at voting rights and democracy like team owners and the Rooney Rule. They say they have the intent of wanting universal suffrage and want “everyone to vote”, but their practical application of those words are the exact opposite of what they claim to want.

Too many in the GOP and on Fox are merely “checking a box” in lauding democracy and voting rights because their actual practice is making it harder for people to vote especially historically disenfranchised voters. The GOP is not exploring ways to make it easier to vote and expand the franchise as widely and as deeply as possible. In fact, across many states they are making it harder for people to vote and are undermining the democracy they claim in their words to support.

I would argue that too many GOP leaders say they support democracy and voting rights, but their actual actions and conduct prove their words are a “sham”. If you put in place impediments to voting, don’t advocate for secure technology and methods to give more access, try to throw out valid elections, and sew distrust of our system, then you are doing exactly what it appears too many NFL owners have done. You say you are for something, but your inherent biases, modes and methods are actually working against your publicly stated purposes.

In order for us to have a working healthy democracy and a nation where people of diversity have an equal voice in decision making, we must have a system of voting where every single person has equal and full access. That doesn’t exist in America today. And like the Rooney Rule, the GOP words of support for voting and democracy is covering up systemic problems in our nation.

In this moment, ease of voting is in practice much more difficult for people of color depending upon which state or jurisdiction someone lives. There are currently no national standards that every political jurisdiction must comply. For example, in Texas where I live and raised my children, we rank 50th in ease of voting. Twenty-five years ago when Democrats held important political offices before the Republicans took complete power, Texas ranked 14th in ease of voting. Much like before the Rooney Rule when three head coaches were persons of color, nineteen years later at present we only have one.

As Flores noted in his statement there is “still so much more to be done” and he called on others to join with him to insist we live up to our words and vision. This is much bigger than a problem in the NFL because we are seeing it play out in our democracy and the ballot box.

Flores quoted Martin Luther King, Jr in that “morals cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. The law cannot make an employer love me, but it can keep him from refusing to hire me because of the color of my skin.”

The same exact sentiment applies to the voting franchise in America and our democracy. The question becomes are we going to let politicians continue to check the box of democracy like the Rooney Rule and then allow them to undermine it at nearly every step. If we do, then our constitutional democratic republic is just a “sham”.