Why Sports Leagues Should Adopt A ‘Rooney Rule’ For Women

Title IX became law 40 years ago Saturday, and while it wasn’t specifically geared toward sports — it includes not a single mention of athletics — we have come to associate it with the opportunities it has provided women in the realm of athletics.

Those benefits aren’t small. Female participation in high school and college sports has increased by more than a thousand percent since 1972, and the number of female high school athletes now tops 3 million nationwide. Title IX, according to one study, is responsible for roughly 20 percent of the increase in women’s education and about 40 percent of the rise in employment for 25-to-34-year-old women. Women who play sports, according to some estimates, will make 14 percent higher wages than non-athletes over their lifetimes.

Still, significant challenges still face women in sports. At the collegiate level, 91 percent of the athletics directors who oversee women’s sports are men. There are only three female athletics directors at top-tier Division I colleges and universities; there have been only nine in history. Just four percent of collegiate athletics directors at the Division I level are female. No team in the big four American professional sports has ever had a female coach, neither has a men’s football or basketball team at the top college level. There has never been a female general manager in any of the major American sports.

Even in women’s sports, opportunities are declining. Forty years ago, females made up 90 percent of the coaches in women’s college sports. That has dropped to 42 percent, the lowest number on record. Successful female coaches have struggled to find new jobs, and they make significantly less than their male counterparts.


Perhaps, then, it’s time for the NCAA and major professional leagues to adopt a “Rooney Rule” for women. Facing a dearth of African-American head coaches, the National Football League instituted the Rooney Rule in 2003, mandating that franchises had to interview at least one minority candidate for any coaching vacancy. The rule later spread to include senior-level front office positions.

Though it was criticized by both blacks and whites at the time, the rule’s success is undeniable. In the 13 years preceding the Rooney Rule, NFL teams hired just four black head coaches. In the decade since, there have been 11 black head coaches, and two others were named interim coaches in that time. In front offices, the story is much the same. The NFL received its second consecutive “A” grade for diversity hiring last year, and minorities hold 25 percent of the league’s senior football operations positions. Minorities in the NFL still face challenges, but the Rooney Rule has created opportunities that were scarce, and often didn’t exist at all, before.

There may not be a large enough pool of candidates yet to mandate that females be interviewed for head coaching jobs at the top levels of men’s professional sports. But enacting such a rule could boost female coaching opportunities in women’s sports, and it could increase the number of women holding top-level positions in professional sports franchises and college athletics departments. Eventually, it could lead to breakthroughs for women in male sports — creating opportunities for women to coach men’s basketball, baseball, and football teams, just as men coach women in softball, women’s basketball, and other sports.

Sports leagues have taken large steps toward increasing participation of women over the last decade, but a glass ceiling not unlike the one once faced by black coaches in the NFL still exists. A Rooney Rule for women may just be the key to breaking it.