What the NFL can teach us about diversity in technology

One of the issues that kept popping up in 2012 was that of diversity in technology. A lot of the discussion was centered around the Brit Ruby conference that was cancelled1. The conference had posted a lineup of all white male speakers and this didn’t go unnoticed by the tech community. This was followed up by allegations of racism and sexism that in turn made the sponsors of the conference uncomfortable. The sponsors decided to pull out, beating the conference without financial backing, and so the conference was canceled.

The fallout

There was a lot of feedback on the announcement. Some said it was a shame that the conference had to be canceled just because of the lineup. Perhaps it was really hard to find anybody but white male speakers who could make it to Manchester on that day and also deliver a talk on Ruby. It’s entirely possible that was the case. Others said that if the conference could only find white male speakers then it was the organizer’s fault because they weren’t looking for anybody else. It’s entirely possible that was true as well. Still others said that as a conference organizer, you should be promoting diversity and actively trying to create a diverse speaker pool to have the best conference possible. That’s also a good point.

Further discussions around whether or not conferences should invite a minority speaker just to avoid the appearance of discrimination circled around to camps. The first, that no one wants to be a token speaker and that doing so would be insulting not just to the speaker but also to the audience. The second camp says that even the act of doing that helps to promote diversity because it puts a minority in front of an audience and that alone can have a ripple effect for other minorities who have considered speaking.

Since I’m a white male, I’m not qualified to speak on many of these issues. All I can do is look at it from the outside and see if there is anything I can possibly do to improve the situation for everyone. The more I thought about the problem, the more I agreed with Frances Berriman who wrote a post2 stating why she believed conferences aren’t the problem:

Conferences are not the problem, they are just showing the symptoms of a severe lack of diversity, generally, throughout the industry. We can cover up the warts all we like with bolstered numbers of minority groups on stage, but we should probably be working out how to tackle the actual issue of why so few of them enter the industry, as novices/newbies/entry-levels/graduates etc., in the first place who would later become the experts we seek out to speak.

To summarize, the problem isn’t that there aren’t enough good minority speakers in technology. The problem is that there aren’t enough minorities in technology. Since you can only draw speakers from those who are in the industry then it follows that it would be harder to find minority speakers that it would white male speakers because of the available pool.

That led me to realize, as a football fan, that the NFL is facing a similar issue right now.


The NFL has a lot of players, 53 on the main roster and 8 on the practice squad, times 32 teams means potentially 1952 players are in the NFL at any given point in time. That doesn’t even include the people who don’t start on a roster and are added later in the year. Non-white players make up about 65% of the NFL.3 That statistic is probably not shocking to anybody who has ever watched the game.

What you might be surprised to learn is that only three of the 32 teams have a minority head coach. That means less than 10% of NFL head coaches are minorities even though 65% of players are minorities. In 2013, there were eight head coaches and seven general managers hired by NFL teams and all of them were white males. The NFL isn’t happy about this and they are continually trying to figure out why there is such a large discrepancy between the players and the coaches.

The first attempt at addressing the problem was to adopt the Rooney rule4, which requires all teams to interview minority candidates for head coach and general manager positions. The rule was enacted in 2003 in order to give minorities a chance at attaining these positions. The reasoning was the same as the reasoning you often hear these days about non-diverse speaker lineups: the problem is that the decision-makers do not come into contact with minorities and therefore aren’t able to select them. The theory was that when decision-makers are forced to seek out minorities then they will also be more likely to hire them simply because of increased exposure.

The league voluntarily adopted the Rooney rule partly to help fend off the threats of unfair hiring practices[5] that were popping up. That is not unlike the public outcries over conference diversity in the technology industry.

By 2006, there were seven minority head coaches in the NFL (22%), a significant improvement over the three present before the Rooney rule (9%). To many, that was a sign that the Rooney rule was working. Perhaps the hallmark moment of the last decade was when the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts faced off in Super Bowl XLI, simultaneously becoming the first African-American head coaches to coach a Super Bowl team. Tony Dungy, the coach of the Colts, then became the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl. It seemed like the league was heading in the right direction.

Yet this year, the NFL is back to pre-Rooney rule representation of minorities as head coaches. If all of the teams are following the rules, and teams get fined if they don’t, then why is this still happening? In reality, there are a few things that are going on.

First and foremost, teams don’t usually fire a head coach unless they know who they want to replace him. There are a small number of big-name coaches that everyone will try to get to coach their team. Failing to get one of those coaches, then it becomes more of an open competition. But if the team already knows who they want as their coach then they still have to go through the process of interviewing a minority even though the decision has pretty much been made. That has led to a series of sham interviews with candidates who really didn’t have a chance at getting the position. They didn’t have a chance not because they weren’t qualified but more because the decision had already been made and now the team had to interview someone to satisfy the Rooney rule. A very sticky situation, and one that is eerily similar to the, “all the speakers I want are white males” issue with technology conferences.

Another problem is that groups of coaches tend to stay together. When you hire a head coach, he will bring with him his coordinators and assistants. When one of those people ends up getting hired as a head coach somewhere else, they will take part of that original staff with them to work with. And so the same coaching families keep going around and around. Unless you are part of one of those coaching families, you’ll have a hard time getting a job. Since those coaching families go back decades, back to when the league had very little diversity in coaching, they tend to be made up of more white males than anything else.

And so 10 years after the Rooney rule was put into place, there are questions about its effectiveness that have led the NFL to consider the problem is not solved.

What we can learn

What the NFL has learned is that forcing interviews of minorities doesn’t actually work. Having a sham interview with the candidate whom you have no intention of hiring is definitely insulting. What many are calling for the NFL to do now is to extend the Rooney rule to coordinators and assistant coaches as well. The idea is that qualified head coaching candidates usually make their way through the assistant coach ranks before finally getting head coach position. If the problem is that there aren’t enough qualified minority head-coaching candidates, then it must also be true that there aren’t enough quality minority coordinator and assistant coaches.

In short, people are now saying for the NFL what Frances said for technology: the problem isn’t a lack of diversity that you see in high-profile people, the problem is the lack of diversity that you see everywhere else. There can’t be a good minority head coach without their first being a good minority assistant coach. There can’t be a good female technology speaker unless there is first a good female technologist. Both the NFL and the technology industry are trying to solve the exact same problem: how do you get more minorities into positions that will allow them to grow and develop into the next great head coach or the next great technology speaker? Neither of these grow on trees and none of them are going to change simply because of a rule here or there.

Again, as a white heterosexual male, I’ve never experienced discrimination. It saddens me that anybody has and that people continue to experience it. Solving this problem is incredibly difficult. I know people may look at things like the Rooney rule and say that it was doomed to failure from the start, but doing nothing never brings about change. Change only happens through action, and action can be ineffective, but I would much rather people try than just give up because the problem is too hard.

I don’t have any easy answers. All I know is that I want things to get better and that I’ll take every opportunity I can to help. But the first thing we all have to do is approach the problem of diversity with compassion. People will try a lot of different things in the next few years to improve diversity in technology. Some will work and some will fail. Let’s promise to give credit to the people who make an effort even if the effort doesn’t result in change, because we will never get anywhere by not trying.

  1. Why Brit Ruby 2013 was cancelled and why this is not ok (GitHub Gist)
  2. Conferences aren’t the problem by Frances Berriman
  3. Justin Medlock adds to list of black NFL kickers, but he’s not a trend-setter by David Whitley (AOL)
  4. <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rooney_Rule>Rooney Rule (Wikipedia)
  5. Tackling Unconscious Bias in Hiring Practices: The Plight of the Rooney Rule by Brian W. Collins (NYU Law Review)

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