NFL’s Latest Leadership Push: A “Rooney Rule” for Women

This week, in an effort to improve diversity in the NFL, commissioner Roger Goodell announced plans to institute a "Rooney Rule" for women. The rule, which was implemented to require that minority candidates be interviewed for coaching positions, will now be used to require the same for female candidates in executive roles.

The NFL wants to break another glass ceiling—this time, for women.

Already, the past six months have been meaningful for women in professional football’s ranks. Last summer, former player Jennifer Welter spent the preseason working as a coach for the Arizona Cardinals. This season, Sarah Thomas became the first female full-time NFL referee. And last month, the Buffalo Bills announced the hiring of Kathryn Smith as the team’s special teams quality control coach, making her the first female full-time coach in NFL history.

The league’s future as a home for female leaders could be expanding as well. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced this week that the league would institute the “Rooney Rule”—the requirement that NFL teams interview minority candidates for coaching positions—to women who apply for jobs at the executive level. (The rule is named for Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who has had a long history of hiring minorities within his organization.)

“You can see that progress is being made. And our commitment is we have something called the Rooney Rule, which requires us to make sure when we have an opening, that on the team or the league level, that we are going to interview a diverse slate of candidates,” Goodell said of the move on Thursday, according to NFL.com. “Well, we’re going to make that commitment and we’re going to formalize that we, as a league, are going to do that with women as well in all of our executive positions. Again, we’re going to keep making progress here and make a difference.”

Beyond coaching staffs, executive leadership roles for women in the NFL are somewhat rare—but not unheard of. For example, Amy Trask was CEO of the Oakland Raiders for many years. She worked with the team for a quarter-century, becoming the first female team leader who wasn’t related to the ownership. Trask stayed in the CEO role for 16 seasons before leaving in 2013. She remains involved with the game as an analyst for CBS Sports.

And Dawn Aponte, executive vice president of football administration for the Miami Dolphins, has been with the team since 2010, though she had recently been the subject of speculation for a position with the Detroit Lions.

Goodell made his announcement on the Rooney Rule changes at the NFL Women’s Summit, an event designed to highlight the role of women in the league, ahead of this weekend’s Super Bowl 50. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and tennis star Serena Williams took part in the event.

Kathryn Smith, the Buffalo Bills' newly hired special teams quality control coach. (Handout photo)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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