Rooney tunes?

The Professional Footballers Association is pressing for the implementation of the Rooney Rule in English soccer. This is nothing to do with the Manchester United superstar of that name, but is named after Dan Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the American National Football League. He pushed forward a requirement, implemented from 2003, that all NFL teams appointing a new Head Coach must include a minority ethnic candidate on their shortlist. The rule is claimed to have had the effect of increasing the numbers of minority Head Coaches in the NFL.

In English professional soccer, amongst the 92 Premiership and Football League teams, just two currently have minority managers – the UK equivalent of the Head Coach post – despite the large numbers of black players who have played at all levels of the game in recent decades. The PFA argues that these players are not getting the breaks that enable them to make the transition from player to manager because of a form of institutional racism. It is calling on the Football Association to make an equivalent of the Rooney Rule mandatory for all teams under its jurisdiction. It seems possible that the FA will do this, as it is already very nervous about having governance rules imposed on it resulting from the recommendations of the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture Media and Sport. This Committee has been throwing its weight around for some time.

English football has not got an unblemished record on racial matters. Back in the 1970s and 1980s some black players would get terrible verbal and sometimes physical abuse from other players and fans. Perhaps more significantly for IEA readers, economists such as Stefan Szymanski of Cass Business School demonstrated that black players were underpaid in the 1980s in relation to white players of comparable skill and experience. Progress has been made: racial abuse at games is now very unusual and quickly stamped on, whilst a by-product of the internationalisation of English football brought about by the Premiership and the Champions League is that under-payment of black players is much less likely.

But there do not seem to be as many black managers as might be expected. Of course under-representation of a group does not necessarily imply discrimination. The abilities required to be a successful team manager differ from those which make a good footballer. Some of our greatest players – Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton come to mind – failed to break through into management, while some of today’s top managers (Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho, say) had limited playing careers. There doesn’t seem, though, to be any reason to suppose that black ex-players are any less likely to display people management, strategic and tactical skills than their white counterparts. There is some anecdotal evidence that black players are put off applying for jobs by the perception that they will not be given a chance. So should the PFA’s position be supported? What harm can it do?

Well, to begin with, not all minority players think it’s a good idea. There is still opposition to the Rooney Rule in the USA, where affirmative action of this kind has been increasingly attacked by members of minority groups as stigmatising them as in need of help.

It can be argued that the increased numbers of minority Head Coach appointments reflects wider changes in American society, including higher educational standards and ambitions of minority groups, rather than the effect of the Rooney Rule. Such changes are arguably occurring in the UK as well, though perhaps more slowly.

Affirmative action issues are very slippery. They are often meaningless gestures, as in the recent Equality Act, which allows employers to choose all sorts of “protected groups” over straight white males, in the unlikely event that the candidates are equal in every other way – a provision which could only have been proposed by people who have never sat on employment panels. Where they do bite, there are often issues in defining the relevant group. What is a “black” candidate, for example? It usually depends on self-classification, as was the case with the Labour Party’s “Black Sections”. The only alternative to that is insane definitions of the kind which developed in Nazi Germany or Apartheid South Africa.

They also raise the question of whether other groups are disadvantaged, and should be brought under the affirmative action umbrella. Football is notorious for having no “out” gay players. Should we have some intervention here?  And what about women? You may remember Cheri Lunghi a few years ago as TV’s The Manageress. It remains a fiction.  But there are some very talented women footballers and team managers, as well as some excellent female Chief Executives and directors of professional clubs. Should they not also have the opportunity to overcome their underrepresentation?

It’s important to be aware of the very different institutional context in England compared with the USA. The NFL is a closed league: there is no promotion or relegation and there are all sorts of restrictions on sporting competition. The NFL is made up of franchises awarded by the league itself, so agreement is easier to reach and enforce. By contrast English clubs are independent entities. The FA has little power, particularly since it made a Faustian deal when the Premier League was set up. It cannot dictate what clubs should do.

Clubs have very disparate ownership and governance structures. A common situation is one where an individual (Roman Abramovitch, for example) owns the club and makes all the important decisions, including the hiring and firing of the manager. At the other extreme are supporter Trusts, where an elected group tries to reflect fan preferences. In between there are classic PLC arrangements, where a Chief Executive acts for a board of institutional shareholders, or smaller-scale family-run operations. There are also a number of clubs where a shadowy group of overseas investors is represented by a front man or woman whose freedom of action is unclear.

They certainly do not have standard appointment procedures on civil service lines. Managerial vacancies (which arise much more frequently than in the NFL, as promotion and relegation issues mean that managers are rapidly fired when performances dip) are not necessarily advertised, or formal interviews held. Often the club will know whom it wishes to appoint before it sacks the previous incumbent. Even if it doesn’t know for certain it is unlikely to put an advert in The Guardian and invite all comers. People’s reputations necessarily go before them in talent markets like sport and the arts. They cannot be subject to standard appointment procedures with job descriptions and person specifications like those for an HR manager or a local government administrator.

Given this reality, without much wider reform of football governance, the Rooney Rule is unlikely to have an impact. At best it may provide an opportunity to publicise and promote minority talent. At worst, however, it may be a farcical procedure which raises the hopes of minority applicants unnecessarily.

More generally, we should be very wary in a free society of interfering with private organisations – whether the regulator is a public or itself a private body like the FA – in the name of a greater good. The steps between gesture and desired result are often unclear, and botched interventions can do more harm than good. I suspect the Rooney Rule may be one of these.

Len Shackleton is an Editorial and Research Fellow at the IEA and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham. He was previously Dean of the Royal Docks Business School at the University of East London and prior to that was Dean of the Westminster Business School. He has also taught at Queen Mary, University of London and worked as an economist in the Civil Service. His research interests are primarily in the economics of labour markets. He has worked with many think tanks, most closely with the Institute of Economic Affairs, where he is an Economics Fellow. He edits the journal Economic Affairs, which is co-published by the IEA and the University of Buckingham.