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Michigan Ross Professor Chris Rider Examines Racial Disparity in NFL Promotion Practices

Chris Rider, Professor Research, NFL

New research from Chris Rider, the Thomas C. Kinnear Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies at the Ross School of Business, and three co-authors, explores racial disparity in National Football League promotion practices. The study shows how the lack of people of color in organizational leadership positions in the NFL persists due to valuative bias – a difference in rewards for equivalent performance on the basis of social identity. 

Recently published in the American Journal of Sociology, “Racial Disparity in Leadership: Evidence of Valuative Bias in the Promotions of National Football League Coaches,” explores the connection between valuative bias and the racial representation of high-level coaches in the NFL. Rider previously researched racial disparities and employment practices in the corporate law sector after the financial crisis of 2008-09. After being introduced to the data on NFL coaches collected by his colleagues at Emory University, Rider joined the research team of Jim Wade (George Washington), Anand Swaminathan (Emory), and Andreas Schwab (Iowa State) and developed an equity analytics framework for documenting racial disparity in promotion rates and understanding its root causes.

Rise of diversity, equity, and inclusion

Organizations across industries have implemented initiatives and practices to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in leadership roles. In the research, Rider and his co-authors express the multi-varied elements that create racial disparities and present frameworks for analyzing and categorizing them. In analyzing the factors behind racial disparities, the researchers distinguished between allocative and valuative biases; biases affecting who works in which job and how they are rewarded for their contributions, respectively.

“I think a big challenge that organizations are still grappling with is they know they have a gap, but they're not sure what is the appropriate solution given the nature of the gap they have,” said Rider. “For example, in the NFL, you can generate a gap in multiple ways. One of which is tracking coaches of color into positions with lesser upward mobility prospects, running backs coach as opposed to quarterbacks coach. You could also get coaches in the same position who are promoted at different rates despite equivalent performance. It turns out that organizations face two different kinds of challenges. One is the allocation of personnel to the position. And the other is how their contributions are valued.”

The effect of valuative bias

The research’s distinction between allocative and valuative bias allows organizations, particularly the NFL, to address unique challenges within employment practices with more targeted strategies. Addressing the racialization or genderization of specific positions necessitates combating allocation bias. However, understanding how an organization values the achievements of potential leaders from different racial backgrounds requires a different approach.

In the case of the NFL, the data the researchers had access to make it particularly straightforward to evaluate career data and distinguish between valuative bias and allocative bias in promotion practices.

“We're systematically evaluating valuative bias’ influence on the gap in ways that's never been done before. In this setting, you actually have the data to draw very specific comparisons between coaches who have similar observable characteristics and differ only with respect to racial identity,” said Rider. “With our multivariate regressions, we can control for coaches that played the same position, start in the same position, and perform equivalently in the same position. All that's really left is what we call differential valuations; that is, you take coaches who are observationally equivalent on a large number of characteristics that certainly matter, and still, this bias in promotions doesn't go away.”

In their examination of all 32 NFL teams between 1985 and 2015, they show that although allocative bias was prevalent and a significant challenge to the successful placement of coaches of color in high-trajectory roles, valuative bias had a substantial effect on the coaches of color’s ability to successfully attain high-level positions, such as offensive/defensive coordinator and head coach. 
Challenging the meritocracy

Due to their unique use of data and career history analyses, Rider and his co-authors challenged many common misconceptions in the NFL. One common presumption that awareness of valuative bias challenges is the idea of meritocracy. The NFL often promotes itself as a meritocratic employment market in which coaches’ individual career ascension is entirely based on performance and success. However, the analysis indicates that coaches who perform equivalently – on many performance metrics – nevertheless differ in their promotion rates on the basis of racial identity. Although the goal is meritocracy and there are performance indicators, they may be applied subjectively.

“The study simulates various gap-closing interventions and identifies what must be done to achieve parity in representation at the head coach level and, consequently, maintain notions of meritocratic promotions in the NFL. Simply addressing differential allocations by, for example, equalizing representation of coaches of color and white coaches in each position (e.g., offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach) will not close the gap. Only if coaches with observationally equivalent performance are promoted at the same rate from lower-level positions can the NFL achieve parity in representation at the head coach level,” said Rider.  

Using valuative bias assessment in the future

One impact of the data addresses the efficacy of the NFL's current DEI practices. The researchers had access to data before and after the addition of the Rooney Rule in NFL promotion practices. The Rooney Rule, implemented in 2003, dictates that NFL decision-makers must interview at least one woman and one member of a marginalized group for every high-level position search. The Rooney Rule has faced its critics, primarily that it hasn’t affected the representation of coaches of color in leadership positions, particularly as the talent pool of coaches has become more diversified. In the case of Rider’s research, the equity analytics framework can be used to advocate for policies to make the Rooney rule more effective.

“From our perspective, the most important insight is not whether or not we can definitively answer if the Rooney Rule was effective. Rather, what we can say is that both before and after the Rooney Rule, there has been a major advantage for white coaches in getting promoted to the coordinator position,” said Rider.

The researchers shared their equity analytics with the Fritz Pollard Alliance to inform changes to the Rooney Rule. One advocate was Cyrus Mehri, a legendary civil rights attorney who worked with the NFL to adopt the Rooney Rule in 2003.

“In the early stage of the project in 2016, we took the preliminary findings to Cyrus and said, ‘Look, I can't tell you if the Rooney Rule works or not, but if it does, it's being applied at too high of a level to have its maximum impact.’ Our analyses helped Cyrus Mehri make a persuasive case for applying the Rooney Rule at the coordinator level to the NFL owners, who agreed to do so informally in 2016 and formally in 2019.”

The researchers’ position is that the Rooney Rule will have the highest impact when applied as early as possible in the coaching hierarchy. Focusing on roles where coaches build the credentials for career ascension has more long-term opportunities to reduce future racial disparity in high-level positions.

Applicability across industries

Although this research focuses on the NFL, primarily due to the ability to track and objectively evaluate long-lasting careers, the problem of racial inequity in leadership roles is not uniquely an NFL problem. Besides the implications on NFL hiring and promotion practices, this research widely applies to many industries. Rider and his colleagues assert their framework can be used in any industry where allocative and valuative biases are present.

“As much as our research focuses on the NFL and shows that there's a pretty strong and persistent racial disparity there, I think we also have to give the NFL credit, that at any given point in time, you typically have more head coaches of color among the 32 teams in the NFL than you have CEOs of color among the Fortune 500,” said Rider. “When we think about that comparison, it tells us there's probably a lot that can be done in large multinational corporations to really affect the prevalent disparities at all career stages. My co-authors and I are really looking to work with organizations that want to analyze the data, use equity analytics to identify gaps, understand what causes them, and start designing interventions to close them.” 

Featured Faculty
Thomas C. Kinnear Professor and Associate Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies