Last week, former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores made headlines in the sports world after he filed a class action lawsuit against the National Football League and all 32 of its teams. Flores, who is African American, was interviewed for a position as head coach of the New York Giants. The job was given to another candidate, but Flores claims that the Giants never intended to consider him for the role in the first place. Rather, he believes that the interview was a sham, and that its sole purpose was to tick a box in order to fulfill a racial quota in the pool of interviewees.
The academic world should pay close attention to the development of this case, as it provides valuable lessons regarding racial preferences in hiring and admissions. Although an investigation is pending, it seems clear that Flores is correct in claiming that the interview was pointless. He alleges that, prior to the interview, he received text messages revealing that Brian Daboll, a white man, got the job. These texts were mistakenly sent by New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichik, who confused the two Brians and congratulated Flores rather than Daboll—an awkward faux pas, to say the least.
While one can sympathize with Flores, the controversy raises an important question: how did the NFL get in this mess in the first place? The answer lies in the league’s implementation of the “Rooney Rule.” According to this rule—introduced in 2003—NFL teams must include ethnic-minority candidates in the pool of interviewees for head coaching jobs, as well as other senior football operations roles. The result has not been an increase in minority representation in these jobs, but rather pointless interviews to fulfill a racial quota, such as the one suffered by Flores.
This incident exposes an uncomfortable truth: often, affirmative action programs function as bureaucratized box-ticking exercises that leave everyone worse off. Academia is no exception. Although there is no equivalent of a Rooney Rule that applies to all higher ed institutions in the United States, many universities do require hiring committees to include ethnic minorities in the pool of candidates. One may begin to wonder how many pointless interviews—such as Flores’— have taken place as a result of these procedures in the academic world.
In his lawsuit, Flores claimed that the NFL is run “like a plantation.” Needless to say, this is a cheap argument that draws an absurd comparison between chattel slavery and an organization that pays athletes and coaches huge sums of money. Predictably, the Flores affair has once again opened the debate about ethnic disparities in the United States. Sports commentators often point out that while 70% of NFL players are black, only one NFL team employs a black head coach. Higher ed analysts, meanwhile, cite similar disparities when discussing the alleged systemic racism in academia: while African Americans constitute 12% of the U.S. population, only 7.2% of American professors are black.
To assume that disparities are prima facie evidence of discrimination is to commit what is now known as the “disparity fallacy.” There may be many other explanations for such disparities. In fact, statisticians have known for a long time that in the interplay of variables, there may be confounding factors. One common way of controlling for such factors is by relying on multiple regression analyses. In many cases, when these analyses are conducted, ethnic disparities largely—although not always entirely—disappear.
In fact, disparities are not hard to find all over society, but few take notice of most of them. The fact that African Americans constitute 70% of NFL players is taken as evidence of discrimination in hiring procedures for head coaching jobs, but by the same token, shouldn’t that same percentage serve as proof of discrimination against white players in the NFL? Of course, it is silly to claim that the NFL is prejudiced against white players, but this makes it clear that disparities are not necessarily proof of discrimination. University administrators ought to take note of this in their approach to disparities in the academic world.
While it is true that American sports have a long, sordid history of racism, their extreme competitiveness makes it unlikely that racial prejudice is a factor in today’s hiring decisions. Teams want to win, and to do so, they will hire whom they consider the best; in the dog-eat-dog world of sports, you cannot afford to be a racist. In fact, Flores himself seems to know this all too well. His attorneys in the lawsuit are white. African Americans are underrepresented in the legal profession, yet he still chose to hire white lawyers. Is Flores a racist for not hiring African American lawyers? No—presumably, Flores simply hired those whom he believed could best move forward with the lawsuit. At worst, Flores would be a hypocrite, but not a racist.
Flores also alleges that he was fired from the Miami Dolphins because he refused to accept $100,000 for every game lost late in the season, as this would help improve the club’s position in the off-season draft. If true, this is a very serious allegation. But it would not be all that surprising—this sort of “tanking” has occurred in professional sports for quite some time. Teams often deliberately lose to be at the bottom of the standings, and thus to have the privilege of first picks in the draft. While these draft rules were originally designed to make sports more equitable, they have actually detracted from the integrity of the game.
This is a perfect example of what social scientists call “perverse incentives,” i.e., initiatives that have results contrary to the original intentions of their designers. Throughout American academia, “equity” has been promoted to such a degree that there is a race to the bottom for the allegedly disadvantaged, who compete over scraps of privilege as compensation for their oppression. Ultimately, the system incentivizes poor performance—not unlike NFL teams who purposely lose a game in order to earn a higher pick in the draft.
In fact, the whole Flores affair should serve as a lesson about the dangers of unintended consequences. The Rooney Rule itself has morphed into a perverse incentive, as it has made a mockery of hiring practices and has ultimately harmed ethnic-minority candidates, who end up being used as tokens of racial virtue-signaling. American academia has a golden opportunity to learn from this debacle and to reconsider many of its administrative procedures and ideological leanings.
Image: Dave Adamson, Public Domain