by N. Jeremi Duru. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 224pp. Hardback. $24.95/£15.99. ISBN: 9780199736003.
Reviewed by: Curtis Fogel, Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, Lakehead University- Orillia. Email: cafogel[at]lakeheadu.ca.
In the beginning of the 1989 National Football League (NFL) season, all of the 32 head coaches were white. In the 2010 season, there were seven African American head coaches at the helm of NFL teams. In ADVANCING THE BALL, N. Jeremi Duru, a law professor at Temple University, traces the struggles that led to the expansion of head coaching opportunities for African American men and other men of color. In so doing, Duru has written a masterpiece of social inquiry, depicting an important modern-day civil rights story.
Duru tells a persuasive story, in a compelling way. The book reads like a legal drama with character development, thick descriptions, suspense, and seemingly insurmountable obstacles to overcome in the fight for race reformation in the NFL. The central protagonist of the story, Cyrus Mehri, is a lawyer made famous in legal circles through successfully winning a civil case against Coca-Cola. Mehri begins a fight against racial injustice in the NFL out of pure interest with no possible remuneration. His fight is guided not just by injustice in the NFL, but by the important example the NFL sets for American society given its popularity as a central institution of American culture. Duru suggests that Mehri’s motivation stems largely from a belief that “racial progress in the sports world often helped propel broader societal progress” (p.30).
As the plot continues, Duru describes how Mehri enlists the help of others to further his cause. He joins forces with another charismatic lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, who is best remembered for successfully defending O.J. Simpson in a high-profile murder trial. The two lawyers formed a team that was both successful in their vocations and had public notoriety from high-profile cases they had won. Fighting the NFL would prove to be a difficult challenge, however, because there was no complainant to which they were seeking damages, nor a clear target to wage their battle against. From the outset, it was unclear whether it was the individual owners and managers of teams in the NFL who were to blame for racial inequalities, or if it was the main office of the league. Mehri and Cochran decided that it was both, but that the league could step in and dictate the terms that could lead to the end of racial injustice within each organization.
While a preliminary survey of coaching in the NFL seemed to suggest clear racial inequality in head coaching, the legal team lacked concrete evidence that racial discrimination was at play. Duru suggests that, to help make their case, a statistical study was commissioned to [*460] examine racial dynamics of coaching in the NFL. The statistics revealed a significant trend whereby African American coaches were the last to be hired, and the first to be fired. Furthermore, the statistics revealed that racial inequalities in hiring and firing had little to do with coaching performance. In fact, the study revealed that African American coaches outperformed white coaches in categories of wins in their first year with a team, wins in the season in which their job was terminated, and overall wins per season. The statistics revealed a clear case of racial discrimination in the NFL.
With clear evidence of racial discrimination, Mehri and Cochran wrote a report detailing their findings and recommendations for racial reform in the NFL. The report led to a meeting with front office personnel of the NFL led by their legal counsel, specifically Jeff Pash a graduate of Harvard Law. Mehri successfully fought to have his concerns heard by the NFL. The NFL head office, however, placed blame on the individual owners of the teams and placed decisions pertaining to racial reform in their hands. This led to meetings of the owners, whereby an agreement was struck requiring all teams to interview at least one individual of color for every head coaching position. This rule became known as the Rooney Rule. Although seen by many as a major victory, the rule meant little since there were no negative sanctions attached to non-compliance. It was, in a sense, an honorary rule that teams could choose to follow or ignore. Within the first three head coaching searches, two teams completely ignored the agreement, revealing its ineffectiveness.
Mehri, and others who had begun to join in his fight, decided to hold a meeting at the NFL combine with invitations sent to all non-white coaches, trainers, administrators, and other team personnel. The aim was to discuss racial inequality, especially in relation to head coaching, in the NFL. More than one hundred people were present at the meeting, which led to the development of the Fritz Pollard Alliance aimed at fighting racial inequality in the NFL. With increased pressure from the Alliance, the NFL head office backed the Rooney Rule, and fined the Detroit Lions $200,000 for violating it. In the following season, all seven teams searching for a new head coach complied with the rule.
While the establishment of the Rooney Rule was a major victory for Mehri and everyone who fought for racial equality in the NFL, Duru concludes his story with perhaps a more memorable victory for the civil rights movement in professional football and American society more generally. Duru’s story concludes with Super Bowl XLI played on February 4, 2007 between the Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Bears. The game represented the first time two African American head coaches, Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith, went head-to-head in the Super Bowl. Without detailing the game, Duru ends his book with the contention that “the game’s outcome meant little. They had all already won” (p.166).
Duru’s impeccable ability to tell a compelling non-fiction story is a highlight of this work. It reads as a page-turner from the opening statement that the NFL has long been “a whites-only business” (p.1) until the final climax [*461] where two African American coaches meet in the championship of American football. Other highlights of the book include the detailed descriptions that Duru provides of closed-door meetings and personal discussions with NFL players and administrators. Gaining access to conduct this type of study on a professional sports organization is a special accomplishment for a critical scholar. This accomplishment alone makes Duru’s work important, while his engaging writing style makes this book of exceptional quality. This book should be read by everyone in the sociology of sport, as well as scholars and non-scholars alike with interests in sports and racial inequality.
© Copyright 2011 by the author, Curtis Fogel.