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Books | Sports

January 3, 2011

How the NFL Got the Rooney Rule

Law professor N. Jeremi Duru explains how Johnnie Cochran and other lawyers helped push the NFL to examine, and change, its hiring practices for coaches.

Andrew Golding

Obituaries for Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr., when he died at age 67 in 2005, began by noting his successful representation of O.J. Simpson in his murder trial. Few of the death notices credited Cochran for his contribution to racial progress in the NFL coaching ranks, which didn't approach reflecting the diversity of the league's players before Cochran got involved.

N. Jeremi Duru. Photo by Ryan Brandenburg.
"There are equity issues all over sport, as there are equity issues all over society."

N. Jeremi Duru. Photo by Ryan Brandenburg.

When the Akron Pros named Fritz Pollard co-head-coach in 1921, he became the first African-American head coach in NFL history. It was not until 1989, when the Los Angeles Raiders gave Art Shell their top coaching job, that the NFL would have a second African-American head coach. Entering the 2002 season, the 32 NFL teams employed just two African-American head coaches—Tony Dungy and Herman Edwards—even though 70% of league players were African-American.

On September 30, 2002, Cochran and labor-law attorney Cyrus Mehri shone a light on this spotty record. They released a statistical study showing a "dismal record of minority hiring into NFL head coaching positions." The study—titled "Black Coaches in the National Football League: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities"—showed that African-American head coaches had averaged more wins per season than white coaches in the preceding 15 years, though few African-Americans were given the opportunity to be head coaches.

Three months after the Cochran/Mehri study was released, and following conversations between the duo and representatives of the league, Steelers owner Dan Rooney chaired a committee to examine the issue. That committee drew up the Rooney Rule, which was approved by NFL owners in 2003. It required teams to interview at least one minority candidate for each head-coaching position. In the 2007 Super Bowl, Dungy's Colts faced the Chicago Bears, coached by Lovie Smith, an African American. And during this season, roughly one in five NFL teams had nonwhite head coaches.

In Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL (Law and Current Events Masters), N. Jeremi Duru, an associate professor at Temple University's James E. Beasley School of Law, chronicles Cochran and Mehri's effort to diversify the NFL's head coaching position, the league response, and the impact of the Rooney Rule.

In this interview, conducted by phone and edited for length and clarity, Duru—who has worked as counsel to the Fritz Pollard Alliance of minority coaches, front-office personnel, and scouts in the NFL—imagines what would have happened if Cochran had sued the NFL for its teams' hiring practices, which other sports group would benefit from a hiring rule, and how other inequities in sports can be fixed.

Gelf Magazine: Your passion for documenting how the Rooney Rule was put into place is evident throughout Advancing the Ball. Can you talk about what inspired you to write the book?

N. Jeremi Duru: My passion is around issues of sport and society. I've been deeply interested in civil-rights issues since I was in high school, and I've also loved sports since I was a kid. As I've grown a bit older, I've been intrigued at the extent to which sport often propels society in a progressive direction around issues of race and also issues of gender. I think about Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics; the integration of baseball and football in this country and what that meant to broader societal integration; and what Billie Jean King's career meant in the battle for gender equality. More recently, I've thought about the Invictus movie about the 1995 World Cup and what that meant to South Africa—how Nelson Mandela brought the country together with sport.
So when I became a lawyer, I became a civil-rights lawyer, and when I had the opportunity to start focusing on race and sports issues, I seized it. Early in my career practicing civil-rights law, I joined a firm which was just beginning to work with the group of coaches of color in the NFL. And that began my direct involvement with—and really increased my passion for—the issues of coaching equality in the league.

Gelf Magazine: Along with Johnnie Cochran, Cyrus Mehri took a lead role when discussing the lack of minority head coaches with the NFL. You worked at his law firm at one point and clearly had great access to him in writing the book. What motivated him to get involved in such a big way?

N. Jeremi Duru: Cyrus has been a self-described rabble-rouser since high school, and he laughingly described himself as a troublemaker. If he saw something he wasn't happy with, he felt it was his duty to say something about it and to say it loudly, even to the extent that it aggravated people. And indeed, a lot of his law practice is based on that: He sees something that's unfair in corporate America, he attacks it, and he gets a lot of pushback for the way he attacks it sometimes, but he attacks it with a lot of passion. And I think the same thing happened here with sport: He was such a football fan that when he saw what he believed, and what I believe, was discrimination popping up in this fantasy world—the place where you go to relax and get away from stuff—he felt the need to beat it back.

Gelf Magazine: If the NFL had never responded to the study at all, what would have happened then?

N. Jeremi Duru: I believe Cyrus and Johnnie would have sued the NFL. Unfortunately, Johnnie Cochran had passed away when I began writing the book so I was not able to interview him. My sense is he was ready to sue and perhaps more ready than Cyrus was, and certainly more ready than Cyrus's partner Steve [Skalet] was. It may have been a situation where they sued, they brought the media into it, and negotiations started from there. The NFL would have countered, and had the advantage of having greater resources, as Cyrus and Johnnie were working on this case pro bono. The NFL had a really strong argument that they were not the appropriate defendant in the case, and that indeed a particular team would be an appropriate defendant in the case.
I think the one person who really deserves a lot of credit for averting what could have been an ugly confrontation between these lawyers and the league is NFL attorney Jeff Pash. I don't think he gets nearly enough credit in the press for the role he has played in ushering in this equal-opportunity initiative. He was the person who said, let's engage these guys, let's talk about it, we know we have a problem. Some others in the league were much more reluctant to sit down at the table with Cyrus and Johnnie.
If you met Jeff, you would have a real appreciation for how quickly he can move from one analytical approach to the next. Jeff is a very calm, non-confrontational, even-keeled guy, and very sensible and practical. He loves the league, he wants the league to be the best it can be, and once he believed the league would not be liable, that the league was running no real risk by talking to these guys, he was open to it. Also, Jeff realized that whether or not there was a viable legal case, the league was taking a bit of a beating in the press: There were print, radio, and TV interviews, in addition to a piece on HBO's Real Sports regarding minority hiring and the statistics that had been presented in the study. Jeff wanted to pull the issue out of the media and engage it, and things started moving positively from there, for the most part.

Gelf Magazine: Why were there so few minority head coaches for so many years?

N. Jeremi Duru: There are a few reasons. One was the old boys' network, with people hiring friends of friends of friends; certainly friendship groups and close professional associations tend to be relatively homogenous and people dip into those pools when they think about whom they're going to hire, and that's a part of it. I think certainly a part of it was stereotypes about intelligence and what it takes to run a professional football team—a team that is four times as big as a basketball team and twice as big as a baseball team, with a playbook four inches thick. There's a sense that perhaps African Americans were not cut out to do that work. Al Campanis said so publicly in the baseball context in the late 1980s, and others may have held that view. I think those two considerations together conspired to keep people of color out of the head-coaching realm in sports generally, but particularly in the NFL, for the bulk of the last century.

Gelf Magazine: Do other sports need a Rooney Rule to match the NFL's?

N. Jeremi Duru: The NBA is doing pretty well in this regard. I don't think it needs one. Major League Baseball actually had a not quite Rooney-like rule, but a strong suggestion that diverse candidate slates be used, and this came into play even before the Rooney Rule was put in place in the NFL. There was never a mandate there in baseball, and as a result it has not gotten much press and has not had the impact of the Rooney Rule. I'd say Major League Baseball is OK in this regard.
Football within the college ranks is where there has been much difficulty. The NCAA has struggled even more mightily than the NFL with respect to having people of color in head-coaching positions. I do think the NCAA would benefit from a Rooney Rule. Dutch Baughman, executive director of the Division I-A Athletic Directors' Association, has made very clear to his members—all of the athletic directors at Division I-A schools—that they should interview one person of color for all head-coaching positions. It seems as though there's a reasonably high level of compliance with that suggestion. After last season, the number of coaches of color in football rose from seven to 14, and a number of people, including Baughman, attribute that in large part to that strong suggestion to its members.
Also, the state of Oregon has now instituted a diverse-candidate rule for its public universities' head-coaching positions and athletic-director posts. And so we're seeing that although the NCAA itself has not issued a mandate, the state of Oregon has.

Gelf Magazine: What did you think about the recent Deadspin article criticizing the Rooney Rule stance on hiring interim coaches, when it prevents a team from hiring an interim coach midseason, even when he is a person of color?

N. Jeremi Duru: If you get rid of the rule regarding the permanent hiring of an interim head coach, then what you do potentially is gut the rule, because somebody who wants to avoid going through a Rooney-rule-satisfying process but who is thinking about sacking the coach, will do so midseason and hire the interim that he wants. I don't think you can make an exception to the rule in the interim case. It's a process-oriented rule, it's not a perfect rule, so there will be places where it applies in a way that is not as seamless as it might be in other respects.

Gelf Magazine: Multiple press reports say Jason Garrett has the Dallas job locked up. Let's say that's true. If you're Ron Rivera, for example—you've been a coordinator in Chicago and San Diego, you've interviewed for multiple head-coaching jobs and have not been selected—would you want to interview for the Dallas job, even if you know you're not going to get it?

N. Jeremi Duru: It's a tough question. I would. Let me tell you a bit about why. The people I've talked to who have interviewed for such jobs, jobs where they didn't think it was likely they would get it or they thought it was very unlikely they would get it, overall those people seemed to view the interviews as being valuable. First, the interview gave them some experience interviewing for a head-coaching position. And second, the interview put them into the pool of potential head-coaching candidates. So I would take the interview.
There are times, in different contexts, when there's an interview of somebody which by all reasonable presumption wouldn't be a real interview. But it doesn't work out that way. I'll give an example. Back in 2002, the Cincinnati Bengals fired Dick LeBeau, who was regarded as a players' coach. Everybody thought the Bengals were going to go for a disciplinarian-type coach because things didn't work well under LeBeau. And sure enough, Tom Coughlin was available. Everybody thought Tom Coughlin would get the job.
Now Marvin Lewis had had huge success with the Baltimore Ravens, but despite that, he was not getting much attention for head-coaching jobs. In the 35-year history of the Bengals organization, it had never interviewed a person of color for a head-coaching, offensive-coordinator, or defensive-coordinator position. So the perception was the Bengals need a disciplinarian, Coughlin is on the market, everybody says they're going to get Coughlin, they've never interviewed a person of color, and it would seem as though Marvin Lewis has no shot at the job. But the Bengals interviewed Marvin Lewis—and he took the interview with all that known—and he apparently did very well and some people in the organization felt Marvin Lewis may be the best person for the job while some others felt Tom Coughlin was the best guy for the job. Over the course of some days, the tide turned toward Marvin, and Marvin got the job. He had a bad year this season, but overall he has turned the Bengals around from a laughingstock to a playoff contender, and he won coach-of-the-year honors last year. Even in situations where it appears it's just a done deal, sometimes it actually isn't.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think there are other inequities in sports besides racial ones that need rules to rectify them?

N. Jeremi Duru: Certainly. There are gender-equity questions in sport, and we have Title IX that's working toward eradicating those. There are class issues and economic issues in sport, as in anything else: situations where people go to high schools that just don't have the sorts of teams that can prepare them to be effective at the higher level—they don't have the equipment, they don't have the playing fields. And there are questions with respect to disability—Oscar Pistorius, the runner from South Africa who attempted to qualify for the Olympics with two prosthetic legs, there were questions about whether he should be relegated out of the Olympics into the Paralympics. Ultimately, he got to run, but he didn't qualify for the Olympics. That's certainly a question of inequity. And there's a transgender issue—the question is, are transgender athletes excluded from what competitions? There are a lot of issues, and I don't hold myself as an expert on all of them. I focus primarily on the racial side of things, but there are equity issues all over sport, as there are equity issues all over society.

Gelf Magazine: I want to ask about your career. You graduated law school, were an associate at several firms and then decided to go into teaching, and have now written this book. If I would have told you 15 years ago, this is what's ahead for you, would you have been surprised? Was this a plan?

N. Jeremi Duru: I would have been happy, because I love what I am doing, and I feel very blessed to be doing what I'm doing. I kind of fell into it. I wanted to be a civil-rights lawyer, and when I came out of law school, I was deeply in debt, didn't have much in the way of financial resources at all, and I felt I had no real option but to go to a large defense-side law firm and try to dig my way out of debt. I clerked for a judge who did civil-rights work and then I went to a large law firm. For the most part, I wasn't terribly happy at the large law firm. It was a good firm and they gave me responsibility, but the sort of work I was doing was not really stoking my passions, and so I said I've got to leave this, I've got to do the civil-rights work I've wanted to do from the beginning. So I took over a 50-percent pay cut and went to Cyrus Mehri's small civil-rights firm, Mehri and Skalet.
So I was finally doing what I wanted to do, and I had no idea I could marry that civil-rights interest with the love of sports and society I've always had. It just so happened that when I got to Cyrus Mehri's firm, when he interviewed me, he said if you accept the job, I've got to tell you we're going to need some help with the work we're doing with these coaches of color in the NFL. And so I said I'd love to and I fell into it and I started doing that work. And while I was there at the law firm, and once I had my foot in the door of the sports-and-race world, I went for broke. I read an article about former Negro League baseball players who felt they should receive supplemental income from Major League Baseball. I got in touch with Bob "Peachhead" Mitchell, who played for the Kansas City Monarchs and was head of this movement, and I counseled him through talking with Major League Baseball, and some supplemental income was ultimately offered to him and others. There also was an individual in a sealed discrimination case who was a director-level employee with one of this country's major sports league's teams, and I worked that case to a settlement.
Any place I could find the intersection of sport and race, I went there and tried to do work at that intersection. And then ultimately, I wanted to write about this stuff and teach about this stuff, and I carried my interest into academia. After writing several law-review articles, I felt that this was a book that had to be written. We talk a lot about the Rooney Rule, but very few people know exactly how it came to pass. I thought it was a very inspirational story, I wanted to write it, and I wanted to do it justice. I took it up about three years ago, and I feel very fortunate to have finished the book.

Andrew Golding

Andrew Golding works in the television industry in New York. He twitters at

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Andrew Golding works in the television industry in New York. He twitters at

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