- Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL by N. Jeremi Duru
Over the last eighty years, the National Football League (NFL) has been a heralded American institution. At the same time, it has historically practiced racial discrimination, both on the field and in the front office. Consequently, not only have African Americans and Latinos had to fight to get on the playing field, but they have had to fight to become coaches, managers, and owners. In Advancing the Ball, N. Jeremi Duru explores the longstanding reluctance of team owners to hire non-white coaches. According to Duru, this unwillingness was predicated on intellectual stereotypes that African Americans lacked the mental fortitude to lead a team, while the “old-boy network” of “friends hiring friends and friends of friends” was rampant (p. 4). But beyond discrimination, the author also looks at the group of black head coaches who eventually broke through, who “shook presumptions long informing head coach hiring and pioneered an extraordinary, and heretofore untold, civil rights story” (p. 7).
Duru begins the narrative with attorney Cyrus Mehri, who specializes in class-action suits. Mehri serves as the central figure in the author’s telling of the fight for equality [End Page 156] among the ranks of coaches in the NFL. On January 15, 2002, ironically the 73rd birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., Mehri learned that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had fired head coach Tony Dungy after leading them to five consecutive winning seasons with four straight playoff appearances. An avid football fan, Mehri was astonished by the decision and, as a result, launched a legal battle against the NFL. To help with this endeavor, Mehri sought the help of attorney Johnnie Cochran, the highest profile black lawyer in the country. After several months of discussions and meetings, they compiled a 300-page assessment of the NFL’s racial diversity and hiring practices titled Black Coaches in the National Football League: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities. The report mentioned that while African Americans represented the majority of players, they were a small minority when it came to holding coaching and front office positions. Reflecting how deeply rooted the culture of discrimination was, Mehri and Cochran met quite a few black coaches who had been fired from NFL positions who did not want to join the lawsuit for fear of never getting another opportunity to coach.
One of the strengths of Duru’s work is his ability to provide insight into the numerous people who played a role in the legal challenge such as Richard Lapchick, a professor at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick served as chairperson of the American Coordinating Committee for Equality in Sport Society and helped Mehri prepare the legal arguments presented to NFL officials. Another important contributor is John Wooten, a former lineman in the league with the Cleveland Browns and Washington Redskins and whom Duru identifies as “the Godfather.” Wooten had pushed league officials to hire African Americans for coaching positions for over a quarter of a century. He provided Mehri and Cochran with a contingent of former players who gave voice to the claims of the two lawyers about the NFL’s discriminatory hiring practices over the previous thirty years. Some of the former NFL players who became involved were Paul “Tank” Younger, Frank Gilliam, Kellen Winslow, and Bobby Mitchell. Their particular stories provide insight into the contributions of those who played an integral role in the fight for equal opportunity in the NFL.
Duru’s discussion surrounding the history of the Rooney Rule and the formation of the Fritz Pollard Alliance (FPA) are also important. The former was a mandate agreed upon by team owners in the NFL to invite a “minority candidate” for an interview when there were coaching vacancies. The FPA was created to serve as a liaison body for coaches as a way to hold the NFL accountable to...