Only six months have passed since Washington attorneys Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie Cochran released a scathing report on the dearth of minority head coaches and executives in the NFL. But Mehri said he knew on the afternoon of March 13 that all the hours they had both devoted to the cause of increasing those numbers had been well worth the time and effort.
That day, in a conference room at his downtown Washington law office, Mehri saw the tears flowing from Bobby Mitchell's eyes during the first official news conference held by the newly created Fritz Pollard Alliance, a group dedicated to ensuring that minority candidates receive equal consideration and opportunity for any league job vacancies.
Mitchell, who retired on Jan. 31 after 41 years as a player, scout and administrator for the Washington Redskins, was the recipient of the group's first Paul "Tank" Younger award to "an individual who has advanced the cause of equal opportunity in the NFL."
Pollard, who died in 1986, was the NFL's first black head coach, named to the position of player-coach with the Akron Pros of the American Professional Football Association in 1921, a year before it changed its name to the National Football League. He also was the league's only black head coach until 1989, when Hall of Famer Art Shell became head coach of the Raiders.
A Grambling man, Younger was the first player in the NFL from a historically black college and went on to become the first African American to become an NFL front-office executive in 1975 with the Los Angeles Rams. He later became a widely respected assistant general manager of the Chargers, and was one of Mitchell's closest friends and confidantes.
"He was always the guy who told Bobby to hang in there, hang in there," Mehri said of Younger. "When Bobby started in the front office, people of color were kind of isolated."
Mitchell, the Redskins' first black player, was the team's assistant general manager until he walked away on Jan. 31 after years of frustration. It began in the Jack Kent Cooke ownership era and continued through the current stewardship of Daniel Snyder. Last season the team initially allowed Mitchell's No. 49 to be worn for the first time since he retired in 1968. Snyder and head coach Steve Spurrier said that had been a mistake and apologized, saying it would not be worn again.
Mitchell spent a dozen years learning all aspects of the business under the late team president and minority owner Edward Bennett Williams, with the goal of becoming a general manager or team president. But it never happened, just as it never happened for Younger and so many other qualified minority executives for so many years. Even now, there are only four African Americans at the top level of NFL team management, including the only black general manager, Ozzie Newsome in Baltimore, and three black head coaches.
"I spent over 40 years with the Washington Redskins, and the best I could do was an internship," Mitchell said the day he received his award. "This alliance won't let that happen again." Asked about Snyder at the news conference, Mitchell was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, "I don't even discuss the man."
Said Snyder: "I think we treated him with class and dignity, and he was involved. I wish him well."
Mehri had another view.
"Bobby was not treated right by the organization he served," he said. "They created a wound on this guy, who was such a class act and a pillar in this community. The team's callousness is just extraordinary. If we did just one good thing with that award for this glorious man, it was all worthwhile."
The formation of the Fritz Pollard Alliance marks the first time a formal organization has been formed to address the league's diversity problems. John Wooten, a former guard with the Cleveland Browns and longtime league executive, and businessman Kellen Winslow, a Hall of Fame tight end with the Chargers, will head the group. Mehri and Cochran will serve as legal counsel.
Since an organizational meeting with 125 participants at the NFL's Indianapolis Scouting Combine in mid-February, the group now has a representative from every team from coaches to club executives, personnel directors and scouts. It will recommend candidates to teams, run mentoring and career development programs and help its members network within the league.
"We believe we can be an equal partner in solving these issues," Mehri said. "We think this is a turning point."
Whether the NFL looks at it in the same light remains to be seen.
Mehri and Cochran have met or communicated with league counsel Jeff Pash and other officials, including executive vice president for labor relations Harold Henderson. But Mehri has never even met Steelers owner Dan Rooney, chairman of the NFL's newly created committee on workplace diversity, though they have corresponded.
In a telephone interview this week, Rooney said his committee has "taken a very proactive stance on this, and we think we're capable of handling the task at hand ourselves. I'm always concerned about having outside people coming in and telling us what to do. I think we've already made good progress, and that's going to continue."
In this case, however, most of the "outside people" in the Pollard Alliance are already under the league umbrella. Mehri estimated that the membership could go as high as 400 current team and league employees.
"Never before have dozens and dozens of people stood shoulder-to-shoulder in an attempt to level the playing field," he said. "I would hope they'll treat us as equal partners. The significance of that can't be understated. If they're smart, they'll look at us as a tremendous resource."