Advancing the Ball

Updated
Advancing the Ball
Advancing the Ball

N. Jeremi Duru, author of Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL, joins the conversation during today’s show. His book discusses the reform the NFL has undergone to having 5 African-American head coaches in the NFL compared to a few years ago when there were none. 

Be sure to check out the full conversation with N. Jeremi Duru at 3:40pm today and check out the below excerpt from his book.

“Reprinted from Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL by N. JEremi Duru with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright © 2011 by Oxford University Press”

 

INTRODUCTION

 

On February 2, 2007, two days before the National Football League’s Super Bowl XLI, the game’s opposing head coaches, Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith, posed together with the trophy the winning coach would hoist after the contest. The event should not have been par- ticularly notable, but it was. Both coaches were African American, and that fact was as much a story as the game itself. Head coaching in the NFL had long been a whites-only business, and just a few years earlier such a matchup had been unthinkable. In 2002, how- ever, two lawyers, Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., together with a few grizzled NFL veterans, launched a movement to expand head coaching opportunities that would profoundly change the League and, arguably, the nation.

Neither Mehri nor Cochran was involved in the NFL or its oper- ations when they decided to challenge the League’s employment prac- tices. They knew as much  about  the  League’s inner  workings as everyday fans, which is essentially what they were. Both loved the sport, and each spent his fair share of Sunday afternoons and Monday nights enjoying the NFL’s product. But each also had grown to view that product as unacceptably flawed from an equal employment opp- ortunity perspective. Opportunities generally abounded for African American players, but not for African Americans interested in leading them as head coaches. Indeed, in the League’s eighty-plus-year his- tory, African American head coaches numbered a mere six.

 

Amazingly, during some of America’s most racially inflamed days, Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard became the first. When Pollard made his playing debut with the Akron Pros Football Club, the nat- ion was just narrowly removed from the infamous “Red Summer” of

 

1919, during which a frenzy of lynchings and other racial attacks left the African American community battered and shaken and Ameri- can race relations at their most raw. A year later, the Pros joined the American Professional Football Association—later renamed the NFL—and somehow, a year after that, in spite of the racism over- whelming the nation, the Pros appointed Pollard as a co–head coach.

More than sixty years would pass before another African Ameri- can held an NFL head coaching job. For several of those years, from 1934 to 1946, the League segregated, banning African Americans from its ranks altogether. But following desegregation in 1946, team owners increasingly hired African American players to stock their previously all-white rosters, and within a few decades African American players had grown to numerically dominate the League. Nevertheless, Afri- can Americans were virtually nonexistent among those who wielded power within the teams’ structures and over their players.

In this respect the NFL was not entirely unlike America’s other premier professional sports leagues. Major League Baseball owners and  National Basketball Association owners, like NFL owners, seemed comfortable fielding scores of African American (and, in the case of Major League Baseball, Latino) players but were far less willing to hire a person of color to lead them.

Those other leagues, however, had shown signs of progress. The NBA featured its first head coach of color in 1966, and Major League Baseball saw its first manager of color in 1975; in both leagues, more Advancing the Ball would follow. In contrast, as of the 1989 NFL season’s inception, although over 60 percent of the NFL’s players were of color, all thirty-two NFL head coaches were white.

Debate as to why, precisely, the NFL’s head coaching ranks were so uniquely colorless birthed multiple theories, the most damning of which attributed the League’s long-standing head coaching homoge- neity to a combination of centuries-old suppositions and the game’s nature. Football is without question America’s most complex sport. A football team’s playbook can be up to several inches thick and gener- ally contains seemingly innumerable formations and plays. But the playbook tells only part of the story. The game’s complexity is most clearly evident as opposing teams prepare for any given play.

Having received instructions from their coaches and huddled up to discuss strategy, the players from both teams get into position. The defensive players array themselves in response to the offense’s align- ment, while the quarterback barks coded instructions. The instruc- tions sometimes trigger movement from one of his teammates, and in the event of such movement, and even in its absence, the defense often adjusts its positioning. Based on the defense’s repositioning, the quarterback sometimes gives new instructions, sparking another round  of movement. All the while, a defensive player—often the middle  linebacker—is issuing instructions  of his own. Once the quarterback calls for the ball, all eleven offensive players execute carefully choreographed maneuvers, each reliant on the precision of his ten teammates. Their defensive counterparts, meanwhile, must respond with their own well-rehearsed schemes to thwart the partic- ular play unfolding before them. When the play ends, each team gathers, regroups, and strategizes anew. Athleticism and instinct are, of course, fundamental to success on both sides of the ball, but with- out intense study and preparation of a scope unmatched in American sport, failure is certain.

The head coach is responsible for coordinating that study and ensuring that the players are prepared to execute; he must therefore be a master strategist and motivator. In addition, because football rosters are extremely large, featuring twice as many players as baseball rosters and four times as many as basketball rosters, a head football coach must be an adept personnel manager. Stereotypes of African American intellectual inferiority dating to slavery presupposed Afri- can Americans insufficiently cerebral to succeed in such roles. Some theorists held that NFL team owners, all of whom were white, shunned  African American head coaching candidates because of conscious or subconscious reliance on those stereotypes.

Other theorists laid blame on a perhaps less malignant but no less damaging phenomenon: the old-boy network, which seemed to thrive in the NFL’s generally conservative culture, and which resulted in friends hiring friends and friends of friends, all of whom happened to be white.

Despite the obstacles facing African Americans aspiring to NFL careers beyond the playing field, and whatever those obstacles’ roots, a small number of African Americans had over the years secured pos- itions in teams’ front offices and on teams’ coaching staffs, and they toiled to open off-field opportunities for others. Their agitation was professionally risky, of course. To some in the NFL, the racial status quo was just fine, and the concept of increased diversity was unset- tling. But the League’s few African American coaches and front office personnel were children of the civil rights movement and had seen people risk far more than professional security and advancement in pursuit of racial equality. They were undaunted, and they eventually made headway in the coaching realm, as during the late 1970s and the

1980s, teams seemed increasingly willing to appoint African Ameri- cans to their coaching staffs. Even so, the color barrier at the top of the coaching hierarchy—the barrier Pollard had surmounted  sixty years earlier—remained intact.

Four games into the 1989 season, the Los Angeles Raiders’ offen- sive line coach, Art Shell, broke through. The Raiders’ storied fran- chise was struggling, and team owner Al Davis, knowing the organization needed a change, named Shell his head coach. Suddenly Shell symbolized the possibility of a new era in the NFL, one in which African Americans might just as reasonably dream of coaching a Super Bowl team as playing for one. But the new era’s promise proved illusory, and by early 2002 frustration among the League’s off-field African Americans was boiling. Shell, despite his success with the Raiders, had long since been terminated. And after the 2001 season, two of the four African Americans who had managed to land head coaching positions in the years after Shell did so were fired as well, despite substantial successes of their own.

Still other African Americans had compiled impeccable creden- tials as NFL assistant coaches over many years without ever receiving a head coaching opportunity. Sherman Lewis, for instance, had been an assistant coach in the League for fourteen years, during ten of which he served just under the head coach as offensive coordinator. He spent most of that time with the Green Bay Packers and was largely responsible for directing Brett Favre and the Packers’ offense to two Super Bowl appearances and one Super Bowl victory. Yet he had generally been a head coaching afterthought. The same was true of Emmitt Thomas, who had been one of the NFL’s most successful defensive backs during his playing days and who had proven himself as talented  a defensive coach as Lewis was an  offensive coach. Although Thomas was an NFL assistant coach for twenty-one years and although he spent seven of those years as a defensive coordi- nator producing consistently dominant defensive units, he too had been largely ignored for head coaching positions. Each year team officials from around the League praised Lewis and Thomas as ex- ceptional coaches well suited for head coaching duties, but no head coaching offers ever attached.

In 2002 both men, having worked as assistants for years with little hope of advancement, were nearing sixty. It appeared unlikely that either would ever be an NFL head coach. And the younger gen- eration, it seemed, would fare no better. After all, if the Baltimore Ravens’ young and dynamic defensive coordinator,  Marvin Lewis (no relation to Sherman), had not secured a head coaching job, pros- pects looked relatively bleak for the League’s other African American assistant coaches.

Marvin Lewis had  been a standout  coach since entering the League in 1992, and upon joining the Ravens’ coaching staff in 1996 he began systematically molding the team’s defensive unit into a juggernaut. By 2000 he had crafted it into perhaps the best defense in NFL history. Overall, the Ravens were not a great team that year. Their offense was barely mediocre, and at one point during the sea- son it went an astonishing five games without scoring a touchdown. Despite this, Lewis’ defense was relentless, obliterating  the  NFL record for fewest points allowed in a season and leading the Ravens into the playoffs and ultimately to a Super Bowl Championship. As spectacular as Lewis’ coaching career was, he, like Sherman Lewis, Emmitt Thomas, and so many other successful African American assistant coaches in the NFL, had never received a head coaching offer.

The inequity, and the “last hired, first fired” pattern it had pro- duced, was glaring to every African American involved in the League, including those who decades earlier had initiated the push to diver- sify the League’s coaching ranks. While some of those early activists had since left the League and others had passed away, a few were still active in NFL affairs, and they continued to carry the mantle, orga- nizing and mentoring those who had entered the League after them and persisting with the campaign they had begun a quarter century earlier. John Wooten, a former Cleveland Browns offensive lineman, by then in his late sixties, led the effort.

Mehri and Cochran, at the time, knew nothing of Wooten and his work, but they were fed up with the NFL and vowed to change it. They set out to convince anyone who would listen that NFL teams were discriminating against African American head coaches and head coaching aspirants. Wooten and his closest allies, sensing the leverage Mehri and Cochran’s efforts represented, offered their assis- tance, and the new coalition demanded that the NFL reform. By

2007, as Dungy and Smith prepared for their historic Super Bowl confrontation, the NFL had done just that. The League had imple- mented detailed regulations designed to thwart discrimination and myopia in its teams’ head coach hiring processes, resulting in a dra- matic increase in the number of African American head coaches. The

NFL’s transformation  was unprecedented, and Dungy, Smith, and the League’s other African American head coaches stood proudly as equal opportunity’s yield.

More interesting even than the NFL’s ultimate transformation is the struggle that propelled it—a struggle I had the good fortune to observe, and in small part aid, first as an attorney in Cyrus Mehri’s law office and then as an activist academic. By way of unlikely alli- ances, legal brinksmanship, and grassroots organizing, a few com- mitted individuals initiated a sea change in America’s most popular and profitable sports league. Moreover, through  successfully en- gaging one of America’s most vexing societal problems in the coun- try’s most  public forum,  they opened  a window into  both  the benefits of equal employment opportunity and the tools with which to secure it, thus providing fair-minded corporate CEOs, executives in other sports leagues, and organization heads of all sorts the raw materials to pursue equity-inducing personnel practices. The ulti- mate impact of their movement on sports as well as the broader so- ciety remains unknown. What is clear, however, is that in challenging the mighty NFL, this small group shook presumptions long inform- ing head coach hiring and pioneered an extraordinary, and heretofore untold, civil rights story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Introduction             7


 

 

Reprinted from Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL by N. JEremi Duru with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright © 2011 by Oxford University Press”

Advancing the Ball

Updated