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Jan. 28, 2020

RISE 5th Annual Super Bowl Critical Conversation examines the NFL's Rooney Rule and the impact of Athlete Activism

Our annual Super Bowl critical conversation on Social Justice, Inclusion and Athlete Activism featured top NFL executives and players.

MIAMI BEACH, FL — What does it take to create more opportunities for people of color in head coaching and front office positions? How do athletes become leaders for creating social change and inspiring young people in their community?

Our fifth annual Super Bowl critical conversation on social justice, inclusion and athlete activism examined these questions with some of the NFL's most influential players and executives.

The Jan. 28 event held at the Super Bowl LIV Media Center inside the Miami Beach Convention Center, featured two solutions-based panels moderated by RISE CEO Diahann Billings-Burford. The first explored the state of diversity and inclusion in sports leadership and discussed the NFL's Rooney Rule, which requires NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching and senior football operations positions. Panelists included Jim Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers, son of the late team chairman Dan Rooney; Aileen Dagrosa, Philadelphia Eagles Senior Vice President, General Counsel; Michelle McKenna, NFL Chief Information Officer; and Paul Tagliabue, the league's commissioner when the Rooney Rule was enacted.

The rule, named after Dan Rooney, was put in place in 2003 and has created significant progress, but recent trends suggest more efforts need to be made to enhance diversity and inclusion in these senior positions.

Since 2003, Tony Dungy and Mike Tomlin became the first African American head coaches to win the Super Bowl, and the league had a record-high nine head coaches of color in 2011. But in 2020, there are the same number of African-American head coaches (3) and general managers (1), than there were in 2003 before the Rooney Rule.

Tagliabue, who also co-chairs RISE's board of directors, said that inclusive hiring has to be part of the culture of an organization, and start with the top.

"It might be that there needs to be a new committee of owners [to address this issue]," Tagliabue said. "You cannot impose the right culture. You can't impose the right set of priorities and the right values from outside. It has to be part of the DNA of the organization. Let it start with the owners and five or six of them can talk to the other 25 or 26, and my guess is that there will be progress."

The second panel gave center-stage to athletes, as Darius Leonard of the Indianapolis Colts and Vince Biegel and Walt Aikens of the Miami Dolphins discussed their role in creating social change and the complexities of being a public figure advocating for equality. They also talked about how they use sports to bridge divides and improve race relations.

"Football brings people a lot closer together, despite your race, ethnicity, or where you come from," Aikens said. "I take it as a challenge [to get to know people of different races]. It's an environment where we can get to know each other and realize, 'he's not so different from me.' We all go through the same struggles and it brings us so much closer together because you really get to understand people."

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