Twenty years later, Cyrus Mehri recites the mantra without hesitation.
“If you change America’s game,” he says, “you change America.”
This football season, The Washington Post is examining the NFL’s decades-long failure to equitably promote Black coaches to top jobs despite the multibillion-dollar league being fueled by Black players.
Those words framed his greater mission in 2002, when the civil rights attorney and a group of social reformers clashed with the NFL over its dreadful minority hiring record. They still express his hope now, despite the league’s continued obstinance. Mehri sees more than just another company infested with discriminatory practices. He sees a plagued American symbol that, if remedied, could deftly shift the nation.
To describe the NFL as a gridiron microcosm of society doesn’t do it justice. It is an economic, cultural and political colossus with more power and influence than it can handle. No sport amplifies and commercializes American exceptionalism as well as the NFL. No sport flaunts its mythology in such a wholly American manner. Even the NFL logo — a star-spangled, red-white-and-blue shield — gushes national pride.
Yet when considering the sport’s lack of interest in racial progress, the NFL is so America it hurts. In a country besmirched with injustice, our most addictive game is a depressing model of our endless race problem.
The NFL, like America, has needed to change for decades. When forced, the league shuffles in that direction, but it doesn’t yield to equality. For 103 seasons, minimal effort has served as a sufficient pacifier for a nation of football junkies.
The Washington Post has spent this season looking at nearly every aspect of pro football’s institutional bias. It is a simple problem made complex because it regenerates within a system designed to keep churning out inequity. In a decentralized league of 32 franchises, team owners function as sovereign monarchs united in ambivalence, forming the roadblock to progress. The only check on their power is a fan base too entranced by the game to care about much else.
“I think the NFL is a bellwether and a mirror of America,” Mehri said. “Progress is a lot of blood, sweat and tears, and when you get there, it’s very hard to hold on to.”
When Mehri joined forces with the late Johnnie Cochran Jr. and built a team to take on the NFL, he understood the significance. The 61-year-old has devoted his life to equality, choosing cases wisely, hoping to make the largest impact for his clients and society at large. The NFL presented his greatest opportunity to appeal to the nation’s soul.
Mehri and his team leveraged negative publicity and the threat of litigation to compel the league to implement a diversity policy dubbed the Rooney Rule. At the time, it was a significant breakthrough.
Two decades later, it is a fraying and cumbersome watchdog apparatus that requires constant modification and numerous complementary programs to try to circumvent the real obstacle and level the playing field for job candidates. In hindsight, the change agents flustered America’s game, but they couldn’t transform it.
“It’s an issue of power,” said Harry Edwards, the sociologist and civil rights activist who has served as a consultant for the San Francisco 49ers since 1985. “It’s an issue of decision-making authority. The image of masculinity is so bound with power that there’s a reluctance, even when it would make a difference in terms of outcome, to share it. The reluctance is steeped in a toxic masculinity that’s easier to identify in football, but it’s everywhere. That’s an American problem. Right now, it’s threatening to tear the whole society apart.”
LEFT: An American flag fluttered next to a pair of Jaguars helmets during a game against the Chiefs. (Reed Hoffmann/AP) RIGHT: The NFL's “Salute to Service” emblem was featured on apparel during a game between the Browns and Dolphins. (Doug Murray/AP)
Just before the first Sunday of the 2016 season, the NFL released a brazen promotion starring players from the past and present — 2½ minutes of pigskin propaganda to reinforce the game’s relationship with patriotism, military pride and civic joy.
It was titled “Football is America.”
The featured men — the likes of Jerry Rice and Odell Beckham Jr., Eli Manning and Drew Brees, Ed Reed and Richard Sherman — kept echoing the phrase. They said it 10 times in 151 seconds, a refrain that wove through images and tropes of both the sport and Americana, the most garish messaging. It debuted Sept. 10, 2016, on the eve of the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In remembrance, the NFL celebrated itself.
“Football is America. It makes America great,” linebacker Von Miller said at one point in the video. “It harnesses the best in us.”
Back then, a half-dozen years and national crises ago, the video could pass as a moving tribute. But there was more to this hard sell.
During the preseason, San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick had begun to kneel and protest police brutality during the national anthem, and with more demonstrations expected during the season’s grand opening Sept. 11, the league resorted, as it often does, to a lazy, image-conscious oversimplification of what it means to love this country. It was just the start of the queasy leadership and frantic embrace of symbols over people that would come to define the NFL for the next few seasons.
The poor handling of the controversy illuminated how little team owners value their predominantly Black labor force. Without respecting the nuance and humanity of the situation, they weaponized performative patriotism and used it to combat players concerned about a disregard for Black lives. When President Donald Trump inflamed the situation, they locked arms with the players for one week in 2017 and pretended to stand for justice when most of them were upset about Trump telling them how to run their franchises.
When Trump persisted with his verbal attack, the owners abandoned the displays of unity and yielded to the bully because they feared the backlash from Trump acolytes would hurt their bottom lines.
“The worst moment in NFL history,” Mehri said of the capitulation.
To test that claim, you would have to navigate a disturbing parade of scandals and atrocities that has burdened the NFL. But it will stand as a historically demoralizing period that resulted in an apology from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in 2020 after video of George Floyd’s murder surfaced and kindled a racial reckoning across the nation.
It was just the kind of lethal police force that led Kaepernick to protest. With civil disobedience, he asked people to look at the justice system. He asked America to look inward — and, in typical fashion, it rejected such a confrontation.
And then NFL owners made Kaepernick disappear. He was bad for business. He threatened the myth of the country and the game.
LEFT: Two Ravens fans held signs urging players to stand for the national anthem before a game against the Steelers in 2017. (Alex Brandon/AP) RIGHT: Colin Kaepernick has been out of the NFL since the 2016 season. (Tony Avelar/AP)
If baseball remains America’s pastime, then football is America’s ego. The NFL reflects the nation in many ways, none more startling than its unabashed ability to depict the most flattering self-image. The lie is too beautiful for the sport to genuinely confront the hideous underlying truths.
“Football proves that diverse people can use their individual talents towards a common goal,” Reed said near the end of the “Football is America” video.
But a mere 26 Black men have been elevated to head coach in a game teeming with Black talent. It is a diversity fiasco, but a nation obsessed with the sport cannot muster the passion to demand change — not when the NFL strums every feel-good chord and makes fandom seem like a public service.
Football is America — at its most blind and greediest, at its most violent and self-absorbed — and therein lies the problem.
On Feb. 1, when lawyers for former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores filed a racial discrimination lawsuit, they challenged the NFL’s facade of decency.
“In certain critical ways, the NFL is racially segregated and is managed much like a plantation,” they wrote on the second of a 58-page complaint.
They elaborated: “The owners watch the games from atop NFL stadiums in their luxury boxes, while their majority-Black workforce put their bodies on the line every Sunday, taking vicious hits and suffering debilitating injuries to their bodies and their brains while the NFL and its owners reap billions of dollars.”
It was an effort, provocative to some, to reclaim the sport, to dislodge it from a marketing fairy tale. Football can be a meritocratic game that rewards talent above all, that teaches motley individuals to be a team and that notices the sweat on a man’s skin before his color. Don’t look too hard, and you can believe that, same as you can be convinced there are no barriers to the American Dream.
Reality is more layered. The game is inherently brutal, and when it was created in the late 19th century, the intention was to toughen up affluent young White men.
American football, which borrows liberally from soccer and rugby, was a post-Civil War invention. Adult White males lamented that their boys had gotten too soft. Much like the current exaggerated machismo, the obsession with masculinity was a poorly veiled overreaction to burgeoning U.S. equality movements. This sport would harden them one bloody nose and broken limb at a time. It would make them fight to acquire and defend territory. In a game mimicking war, it would teach them to be American men.
Walter Camp, hailed as “the father of American football,” played at Yale and then coached at Yale and Stanford. He ended his coaching career with a 79-5-3 record, a reputation as an innovator and a complicated legacy because he made the game more violent.
“Better make a boy an outdoor savage than an indoor weakling,” Camp infamously wrote in defense of his tactics.
More than 150 years later, the players look way different. This game, developed after slavery for young White men, diversified. In the NFL, football profits off mostly Black bodies who seldom ascend to leadership roles after they’re finished playing. Billionaires pay millionaires at this level, but the money doesn’t make the players feel any less like property.
The outdoor savages have gone inside. It’s still their game, their territory. They will fight for every inch of it.
For Black coaches, it is not intimidating. The resistance is, sadly, an expected part of their American experience.
“America is a White space,” Las Vegas Raiders defensive coordinator Patrick Graham said, laughing, when asked about the difficulties. “That’s why I think it’s funny when people say that stuff. I live in America.”
Graham already knows how to handle it. He was born knowing how to handle it.
“This is life, being Black in America,” said Graham, who shares a close friendship with Flores. “I’m 6-3. I’m a big, Black man. Before I open my mouth, that’s who I am. It goes back to when I was in high school. I remember I had on a Yale T-shirt. I had just got accepted and decided to go to Yale. I had my T-shirt on, and I’m in the grocery store. The woman just assumed — I was skinny in high school. She’s like, ‘So why are you wearing a Yale T-shirt?’ This is the lady bagging groceries. I’m like, ‘I’m going to Yale for college.’ She’s like, ‘Wow, so they give out athletic scholarships at Yale?’ That was the first thing she said to me.
“So there I am. I’m 18. Did it crush me? No. I knew what she was saying. And they don’t give athletic scholarships at Yale. That’s at 18. Do you really think — at 18, having to deal with that s---? I have to move on, man. Do I wish it was different? Yeah. Some other people’s kids aren’t dealing with that. They’re not dealing with that. It is what it is. Is it good? No. Is it reality? Yeah.”
Unlike the rest of America, Black people account for about 60 percent of the players in the NFL. Nearly half of the Division I college players are African American. The pool of potential coaching candidates is deep. The NFL has the numbers on its side. It should be a utopia for inclusion, but it functions as if there is no pipeline.
In this world, fairness does not matter. The right thing is not persuasive. It is a negotiation, always, with gatekeepers who have internalized football’s wicked ethos: You’re either gaining or giving ground. It warps equal opportunity and makes it seem like a zero-sum game. It leaves the deprived to barter for change with people who already have it all.
“Sport recapitulates society,” Edwards said. “Nothing happens in American society in terms of race relations, on a macro level, without transactional leverage. If you can’t give a sucker something he can use, you better be able to take something away. Otherwise, you’re just sitting across the table staring at someone, and it’s inevitable you will be dismissed.”
Left alone, NFL owners will not consistently honor equitable hiring practices. The Indianapolis Colts’ Jim Irsay provided a reminder last month when he fired Frank Reich and then ignored his front office and tapped former Colts player Jeff Saturday, an ESPN personality with no high-level coaching experience, to be his interim coach.
Irsay did not violate the Rooney Rule, which stipulates two minority or female candidates must be interviewed, because Saturday is a fill-in, for now. But he spurned a principle of fair and diverse hiring by giving a prime audition to an unqualified person in his social circle. When asked about it, he launched into a lecture.
“There is no problem or perception, except some of you guys make a problem or perception,” Irsay told reporters before ranting about media accountability.
Irsay has a good minority hiring record. He won a Super Bowl with Tony Dungy and went to another with Dungy’s replacement, Jim Caldwell. But it doesn’t make him beyond reproach.
That Irsay would be so bold and unapologetic during this period — when Flores and two other Black coaches are suing the league — speaks to the owners’ sense of invincibility. He couldn’t see past a desire to affirm his power. Perhaps those not named in the lawsuit haven’t been humbled enough.
Progress is the ultimate chore. The marginalized, and their allies, are not the ones who need to move, but they’re the ones who have to push.
“I feel like we’ve kind of backed into being a diverse country,” Mehri said. “We haven’t affirmatively and clearly said how this makes us a better country. When you bring up a race issue, one-third of the country is going to support the effort against injustice. One-third will be openly hostile. But how do we get that middle third over to the right side? We may be able to see the power, and we may believe it should be understood, but we have to be able to articulate it better. We haven’t won that argument yet.”
The next generation needs that win.
Graham is regarded as a possible future head coach. At 43, he has been interviewed for a few top jobs. He has worked for five NFL franchises and learned under Super Bowl winners Bill Belichick and Mike McCarthy.
If Irsay intends to stage a legitimate process to replace Reich, maybe he will have a conversation with Graham. It would be revelatory. Graham is a rare combination of cerebral and intense. He is a mastermind from the school of Belichick who designs such intricate defensive schemes that his former players on the New York Giants nicknamed him “the Black Picasso.” He is a football artist. He teaches the game like a STEM educator. And, when necessary, he also barks loud enough to peel the paint off a room’s walls.
Peers in the industry laud his self-possession and wonder whether Graham will be an even better head coach than coordinator. He sees the game in so many dimensions, and he knows who he is. He will not change, not even for a coveted opportunity. He’s hoping a team will truly see him — all of him. He’s not looking for a colorblind boss. He’s not downplaying his personality to accentuate the math and science geek. If a team chooses him, it will hire an authentic Black man.
“There’s no hiding that. Not in this country,” Graham said. “I’m accepting of it because I see myself as a Black man first. Before I see myself as Patrick Graham, I see myself as a Black man named Patrick Graham. When you tell people that, some people, it can catch them off guard. That’s how I see myself. Whether it’s right or wrong, that’s how I see myself. And I think when people take that into consideration, it helps provide a little more perspective.”
In February, Mehri made a proclamation in front of Goodell: Fritz Pollard should have been the league’s first Black owner. The NFL still hasn’t had one, and more than a century ago, Pollard would have been an ideal breakthrough candidate.
He was a superstar during pro football’s fledgling days and became its first Black coach in 1921. He was born a year before George Halas, a fellow Chicago native and longtime rival who bought the Chicago Bears franchise for $100. The team has remained in the family for more than a century, and it’s an asset that Forbes estimates to be worth $5.8 billion.
In a different America, in a better America, Pollard and his family also could have been wealthy NFL stewards. But the sport merely tolerated a handful of African Americans during Pollard’s playing days, and after the 1933 season, it essentially banned Black athletes for a dozen seasons. Pollard, who attended Brown University, became a successful businessman. He was an investor for a couple of barnstorming football teams. He founded the first Black-owned securities firm. He bought a newspaper, ran a talent agency and ventured into film and music production.
He managed Lena Horne and Paul Robeson, his former teammate. He befriended John D. Rockefeller, whom he had met while at Brown. When Pollard needed money to ignite his dreams, Rockefeller loaned him $29,000. Pollard had everything it took to be an NFL owner — except access.
“Can you imagine how all of American sports history would be completely different?” Mehri said. “But it was an era of lynchings and the Tulsa Massacre, and the NFL couldn’t see through the rampant racism to recognize that it had a Renaissance man and a chance to do something transformative.”
Mehri reimagined this awful past during Super Bowl LVI festivities in Los Angeles. He attended one of his favorite events that February day: the Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Salute to Excellence awards. For the past 17 years, the Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation has hosted the event, which honors people and organizations committed to inclusion.
Flores had filed his lawsuit nine days earlier. After Mehri pondered the “what if?” question, he brought the conversation back to a concern that looms in many minds: What now?
Football is America, and for 246 years, America has preserved racial inequality. It suggests the sport is still in its discrimination adolescence.
“We got it wrong for 100 years,” Mehri said.
Then he made a plea to all who enable this unchanged American game.
“Let’s not get it wrong for the next 100 years.”