The issue of discrimination in professional football has again come to the fore through public statements by Fifa Vice President Jeffrey Webb in The Guardian newspaper that such discrimination is “overt”. This time attention turns to the under-representation of ethnic minority managers in the English football leagues. In particular, the talk has focussed on the “Rooney Rule”, an American initiative established in 2003 which requires NFL clubs there to interview at least one minority candidate for any head coach or senior football operations vacancy. Though the Rule does not require any active preference to be given to that candidate, minority representation in NFL team management has reportedly jumped over that period from 6 to 22%. If we assume, as we must, that the fortunes involved in doing well in the NFL mean that no team will consciously appoint anyone other than the person it sees as the best candidate, it becomes apparent that the compulsory minority interview has brought candidates into view who might otherwise have been missed.

On this basis Webb, Keith Curle (one of only two non-white football managers currently plying his trade in the top 4 flights of English football, 92 Clubs all told) and Kick it Out believe that the introduction of such a rule would address the under-representation issue here, while others have either denied that racism exists in the sport or argued that if it does, the Rooney Rule is not the answer.

While those statistics are striking, the obvious first question, however, is whether the Rooney Rule would even be lawful in this country. The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination in relation to race (that covers positive discrimination too, for the most part) in both employment and recruitment, including in the ‘arrangements’ made for deciding to whom to offer employment. ‘Arrangements’ is construed broadly and would include any selection process, including for example the questions on an application form or the compiling of any short-list. On the face of it therefore, the Rooney Rule is likely to be held to be discriminatory if, in giving effect to it, the inclusion of the non-white candidate was at the expense of a better-qualified white candidate, rather than his simply being an additional candidate. Even in the latter case, there is still a risk, however – if you have to have an ethnic minority candidate, that excludes considerations of ultimate fit for that person, while a similarly (un-) qualified white applicant might not get that same chance to be interviewed. The Club might argue that the minority candidate would not have got the job anyway and therefore that the white claimant suffered no loss as he would not have got it either, but the Rooney Rule experience in the US seems to militate against this. Where premiership manager salaries run into millions, the compensation for discriminatory exclusion even from a chance of appointment could be very sizeable.

Since April 2011 the Equality Act has allowed positive discrimination in certain very limited circumstances. An employer may hire a candidate based on his race provided that (a) members of that race are disadvantaged or that their participation in an activity is disproportionately low (as would clearly be the case in respect of minority football managers) and (b) this individual is “as qualified as” the other best candidate, i.e. his race was in effect the tie-breaker. In the relatively subjective world of football management, however, it would be very difficult for a Club seeking to rely on this positive action provision to prove that the two candidates were indeed “equally qualified”. These are not all formal or quantifiable qualifications such as coaching badges, length of experience and number of wins. Clubs would quickly find themselves debating the respective but intangible merits of varying levels of success, domestic and international history, reputation, transfer market dealings, links to player targets, etc.

As a result, if a Club sought to exercise the positive action provisions to hire an ethnic minority manager and later faced a Tribunal claim from an unsuccessful white candidate, it may be safer not to base its defence on positive action, but to instead explain why it felt that the ethnic minority candidate was a better match for the role. This avoids the need for the Club to tread the dangerous and difficult line of having to prove that the two candidates were ‘equally qualified’. In reality, since the histories and circumstances of serious candidates for top-flight football management roles will never be identical, the practical likelihood of two such candidates being genuinely “equally qualified” is in any case minimal.

So, if the Rooney Rule would be unlawful discrimination and if the positive action tie-breaker provisions in the Equality Act are potentially dangerous, what is the answer to addressing the blatant under-representation of non-white football managers in the UK? We will look at that question in the second half of this post next week.