Monday, September 26, 2011

The Premier League, The Rooney Rule, And Changing The Game

US National Team Players Association, September 23, 2011

England's Premier League is considering instituting a version of the Rooney Rule, the National Football League's mechanism to insure minority coaches have a fair shot at head coaching jobs.

By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Sep 23, 2011) US Soccer Players -- England's Premier League finds itself working through a difficult equation when it comes to race and coaching at the professional level. On one side are the vast numbers of minorities playing the sport at all levels, including 25% or more at the professional level. On the other, the number two. That's how many black managers are currently employed out of 92 professional clubs.

For North American pro sports fans, this is a familiar discussion. How does a sport, especially one with a long history of denying opportunities based on skin color, right that historical inequality?

Though no one should be arguing that North American professional sports is devoid of racial bias, meaningful steps have been taken to create opportunity. There's a long list of firsts for African American and Hispanic players in Major League Baseball, the oldest pro team sport in the United States. What was - decades of institutionalized racism that barred participation - is no more. That list of firsts includes players, coaches, managers, league executives, and team owners.

English professional soccer's efforts to remedy the lack of opportunity for minority players along with the environment that waited for them should they make the professional level began relatively late. Into the 1980's, minorities trying to play in the English League were still facing a day-to-day racism that was overt, menacing, and dangerous. The English game has changed over the last twenty years on the field and in the stands. Where it hasn't is on the sidelines.

Around 25% of English professional players representing multiple countries and heritages would identify as black. The numbers are significantly smaller for Asian and Hispanic players. Yet just two out of 92 professional clubs have black managers. That doesn't include the black players and coaches working in England that never reach the professional level. The number only gets bigger on one side of the equation. England has already admitted they have a problem, and they're now working on a solution.

Across the Atlantic, the National Football League faced this very issue. The coaching ranks were not representative of the black players in the NFL, much less African-American participation at all levels of the game. With numerous black coaches, it made no sense that so few ever ended up as NFL head coaches. The numbers simply didn't add up, and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney responded by championing what's become known as the Rooney rule. Simply put, NFL teams have to show the league that they've interviewed at least one minority candidate for open coaching positions.

Since the rule's adoption, this has created opportunities for black coaches. It worked, because even though it did not mandate teams hire minority candidates, it allowed those candidates the opportunity to dispel erroneous notions about their ability to do the job based on historical prejudice. Rooney's own Steelers won the Super Bowl with an African-American coach who never played in the NFL.

While England debates the merit of a similar rule for the Premier League down through the Football League, American soccer is left out of the conversation for two reasons: There's not the historical precedent of denying opportunities to minority candidates, and the League has already acted, enacting a modified version of the Rooney rule.

There may not be a sense that the sport in the United States suffers from the same institutional racism that infects the English game. Part of that is the newness of Major League Soccer. A league born in the mid 1990's isn't going to carry with it the weight of history. With professional soccer already considered a foreign sport by most Americans, having a multi-national component on the field and on the sidelines made sense.

By establishing the MLS version of the Rooney rule - called the Coaching Diversity Initiative - the League made it clear they would work to try to solve what's now being discussed in England. Even for a new league like MLS, there's the potential for problems. Acting early helps to prevent the perception of bias in hiring practices. Considering the multiple ethnicities participating in soccer in North America, it's a necessity.

Though the rule’s announcement came and went so quietly that most American soccer fans probably don’t even know it exists, it's in place for a reason. Hispanic player and participation numbers are huge in the United States. Groups and individuals have worked for years to establish a soccer tradition among African Americans. Success on the field means a support system that got the player to that point. Those coaches and administrators should also have opportunities at higher levels. It's only fair, something the English professional game continues to struggle with.

Mandating teams interview at least one minority candidate, one that is presumably qualified for the position, hurts no one. It's a valuable step in a process.

England is considering taking a major step based on historical precedent in working towards making sure minorities are given equal opportunity in the coaching ranks, but it's a small step in the big picture.

Soccer can be the game for all people, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender. Though even in soccer the elite athletes at the highest professional level have rare athletic prowess, that's not a necessity to understand the game as a coach. For a sport that has been identified so heavily with exclusion, soccer is in the position to take the biggest steps towards full inclusion.

Jason Davis is the founder of MatchFitUSA.com. Contact him: matchfitusa@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: http://twitter.com/mfusa.

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