Soccer: Can the NFL's Rooney Rule Really Work in the English Premier League?

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Soccer: Can the NFL's Rooney Rule Really Work in the English Premier League?
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Paul Ince is one of the few colored men to have managed in the Premier League

Historically, sports in the UK have been slow to learn anything from those in the US. There's a certain one-eyedness about the leading sports, stemming from an attitude of 'the game began here, so we must be doing it the best way here'.

Over time, there have been one or two concessions made. Cricket realized in the late 1980s that players could benefit from some of the fielding and throwing techniques commonplace in the NBA, whilst England's victory in the 2003 Rugby World Cup came on the back of the kicking of Jonny Wilkinson, a man whose coach, Dave Aldred, worked extensively with football sides in the US.

Other than that, though, the involvement of British teams in the US has been largely limited to sending players over for knee surgery.

Slowly, things have been changing. It began when the owners of US sports teams began following the lead set by the Glazer family and began acquiring Premier League football teams.

It was a culture shock to both sides—the new owners found themselves in a league with apparently no financial rules whatsoever, whilst managers used to having millions to spend on players whenever they wanted to suddenly found that their owners had more than one mouth to feed and were splitting their resources between the two sides of the Atlantic.

The happy result of this was that soccer had to become less insular and open itself up to what was going on around the rest of the world. Which is why we now have a situation where the English Premier League (EPL) is under pressure to implement the Rooney Rule, the rule which says that NFL teams must interview at least one minority candidate for every head coaching vacancy.

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Bill Belichick is proof that a great coach doesn't have to have played a game professionally
The problem is that roughly 25 percent of players in soccer are black. However, of the 92 team manager jobs, only two are held by black managers. The imbalance is obvious and there is a lot of support for the introduction of rules to change this.

What is noticeably lacking from that support, though, is an acknowledgment that the EPL and the NFL are two very different things indeed.

For a start, the paths to management and coaching at the highest level are very different.

In the Premier League, only one manager—Andre Villas-Boas of Chelsea—did not play the game as a professional. In the NFL, of the last five Super-Bowl-winning coaches, two did not play professionally at all (Tom Coughlin and Mike Tomlin) and two had careers lasting less than five years (Tony Dungy and Sean Payton), whilst the most successful coach of the last decade, Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots did not play professionally at all, either.

The path to a managerial career in soccer is, broadly speaking: play the game, obtain some coaching qualifications, become a manager. In football, good players rarely make good coaches (look how few Hall of Fame players have gone on to have a successful coaching career).

To one extent, this explains why there is a problem. Minority coaches in football have a chance to work their way up the coaching ladder. The pressure on those running football teams at every level is such that the good coaches progress, no matter who they are or where they come from.

In soccer, if you have not made a name for yourself as a player, the chances are that you won't be managing in the EPL.

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Mike Tomlin
On the other hand, though, it also shows how soccer had created a problem for itself. The NFL player pool is exclusively American and the coaching pool is pretty much the same. In the EPL, around 50 percent of the players come from overseas and that includes more than 50 percent of the black players. The vast majority of those are going to want to return home at some point.

Which means that although 25 percent of the player pool for soccer is black, the pool of minority players available to become managers is far smaller.

Compare that to the NFL, where the talent pool for coaching roles is not confined to those who have played the game, and where approximately 45 percent of the player pool would be classed as minority—under the Rooney Rule, anyway.

This means that in order to appoint a black (or minority) manager, a soccer team owner has to take a chance on a player who may not have managed before. And the player that would be best suited to that role might not want to stay in the UK anyway.

Add to that the fact that soccer teams around the world tend to look not only at the talent pool within their own country, but overseas, and you will see why it is so hard for a new manager to break into management, no matter what creed or color they are.

After all, soccer clubs are businesses. Would you let someone who has never run a company of any kind run yours?

All of which begs the question: 'Would having the Rooney Rule change anything'?

On the evidence, it is hard to see how it would. Take out the significant number of players who don't want to become managers anyway, rule out those who would not be deemed successful enough as players to be considered for management (at least at the highest level), and ignore those who wouldn't want to manage in England and the number who would be affected by it is smaller than advocates of the Rooney Rule would have you believe.

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Jose Mourinho is a rare creature in soccer - a successful manager who didn't play the game
Then throw in the fact that fans and owners will look at the successful owners in other leagues and consider them as candidates every bit as much as an English player.

The upshot is going to be that owners will know full well who they want as their new manager and all a Rooney Rule will do is to create a situation where owners use a small number of minority managerial candidates to pay lip service to it. Which isn't going to change anything.

This is, of course, an objection which applied (in a slightly different way) when the NFL introduced the Rule in the first place. But in the NFL, because coaches so infrequently come straight into an NFL role from playing, it is much clearer who is and is not a good coach and so much easier to police whether or not the rule is being applied fairly,

Which means that until soccer begins to accept that great coaches do not have to have been great players—and if the likes of Villas-Boas and Jose Mourinho are not convincing them then nothing will—then introducing the Rooney Rule is unlikely to bring about any significant change at all.

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