For a football/sports geek who loves history, Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL is my idea of a romance novel. A friend and person of note in the book, Dr. Kenneth Shropshire, suggested that I contact the author Professor N. Jeremi Duru of the American University School of Law to join us on our sports show. Professor Duru forwarded a copy of the book that I thought I’d skim and read enough to have a thoughtful discussion. Instead I lost a Saturday because I couldn’t put the book down and gained an even greater respect for the pioneers in the NFL, the legal community and those committed civil rights activists who sought to bring equality to the coaching ranks of the league.
The Rooney Rule is a common term that we hear tossed about frequently each January as teams begin the search to replace coaches that no longer fit. The thirty-two NFL teams are owned by a homogenous group and, until recently, they were coached by such as well. Duru shares the struggle and story behind the rule from a legal, historical and sports perspective. It’s difficult to discuss legal precedent with football lore and coaching stats, but Duru strikes the balance that engages NFL fans and non-fans alike. At the finish of the story, readers will have a thorough understanding of both the letter and spirit of the rule.
Advancing the Ball shares the beginning of the Rooney Rule: Attorney Cyrus Mehri and his morning ritual browsing of the sports page that one day printed news of the firing of the highly successful and respected coach Tony Dungy. Joining forces with noted Civil Rights attorney Johnnie Cochran, Mehri identified inequity, quantified it and challenged the NFL on its blatant wrongdoings. Duru captures the actual anger and disgust at the unfair Dungy firing and chronicles each step of the complicated process that ends with the owners in agreement and a historic moment in a Super Bowl.
There are familiar names like Dungy, Cochran, Rozelle, Paul Tagliabue, and Kellen Winslow – each with a significant role in the push toward equal access to coaching opportunity. Then there were other lesser-known names such as John Wooten, Fritz Pollard, James “Shack” Harris, and others introduced to older fans and younger readers. And ladies, there’s even mention of the woman, Professor Janice Madden, whose work is foundational to the successful challenge.
Readers will enjoy the stories and anecdotes throughout the book, written with such clarity that you almost feel like you’re in the room. The end of each chapter shares just enough to entice the reader to turn the page because you simply must know what happens next. No sports book kept me this rapt since Moneyball so my sports-loving lawyer friends now know what to expect on their birthdays.
The road to the enactment and enforcement of the Rooney Rule was a complex, passionate journey that boiled down to some simple facts that Duru told brilliantly: all of those named loved the game, the decades of wrongs were on record, and even the big win was simply a start.