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‘Rooney Rule’ Accomplishments Please Attorney Who Fought for It

  • Tala Hadavi

American civil right lawyer Cyrus Mehri promotes NFL's 'Rooney Rule' to fight for equal opportunity

American civil right lawyer Cyrus Mehri promotes NFL's 'Rooney Rule' to fight for equal opportunity

The United States is known for being the land of equal opportunity. But that does not mean Americans don’t sometimes have to fight to get that opportunity. Here’s the story about one man who has made his mark helping to fight that battle.

Cyrus Mehri is one of the most influential - and perhaps feared - civil rights lawyers in America. In 2001, he settled one of the largest civil rights cases in the history of the United States - against The Coca-Cola Company for 192.5 Million dollars. Discrimination is a topic close to this Iranian American’s heart.


“I grew up in a family that when they came to the United States, they loved this country but they also saw some of the shortcomings in the U.S. And one of the shortcomings was the issue of race,” Mehri said.

Mehri’s passion for justice, combined with a deep love of American football, led him to take on one such shortcoming in the world of professional sports.

”Literally I was reading the newspaper and I said ‘something has to change’ because they were down to only one African-American head coach out of 32 in the National Football League,” he added.

Mehri and some of his colleagues released a report on the issue, prompting the NFL to adopt a new rule, called the “Rooney Rule.” It’s named after Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney who is also chairman of the league’s equal opportunity committee. The rule mandates that at least one person of color must be interviewed for any head coaching vacancy.

“Sports is kind of a microcosm of the rest of the country,” said Mehri. “In terms of American football, people unite behind it and forget about their problems, they forget about white or black. So that’s why if we can turn around sports or if you change America’s game, you change America.”

Although a seemingly simple remedy, the rule has brought about significant change. Eight years later, the NFL has eight head coaches and five general managers of color.

”This is rewarding just because it’s satisfying to know that you can just stand up one day, with an idea, and act on that idea, and bring about fundamental change in society,” he added.

Law professor Jeremi Duru, who once worked for Mehri, is also a major supporter of the Rooney Rule. Duru recently released a book called Advancing the Ball.

”Everybody watches sports,” Duru said. “If people see equal opportunity initiative working to the benefit of the institutions involved, the businesses involved and the candidates, I think they will begin to emulate that in other realms of our society.”

But the rule has its opponents. Dr. Carl Horowitz of the National Legal and Policy Center says the Rooney Rule is a “zero sum” game.

“I don’t think race really should matter,” said Horowitz. “Its intangibles, who is gonna get the job done, who in your sense is the right person for the job, the right motivator, the right strategist. The Rooney Rule is a search process by quota; it necessarily involves discrimination against whites even though that’s not what is openly said. It causes the public to second-guess a hiring decision regardless of whether the hire is black or white.”

Duru, however, disagrees. He says the Rooney rule is just about giving one person an opportunity to have an interview.

”You can interview 20 people, you can interview 10,” Duru said. “Only one has to be of color and therefore nobody loses an opportunity to interview. And then once the interview is done, that’s it. All it does is open up an opportunity. And I think that’s why it makes it, really, in my view, so unobjectionable.”

Whether the Rooney Rule was a good idea or not, it’s a fact that seven of the last 10 teams to appear in the Super Bowl had either a head coach or a general manager who was African-American.

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