The plight of the black athlete in United States professional and collegiate sports reflects a historical road burdened by strident discrimination, yielding assimilation and gleeful exploitation. As African American athletes began to be permitted to enter the lineups of storied professional sports clubs beginning in the 1950s, they did so only on the strict conditions placed upon them by the status quo white male dominated regime. Often the very terms of black athlete participation required a rigid commitment to - covering - racial identity and outright suppression of self. Once African American athletes burst onto the nation's consciousness in the forms of Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Althea Gibson, Kenny Washington, Chuck Cooper, Bill Willis, Sweetwater Clifton, Marion Motley, Wilma Rudolph, and Muhammad Ali, white America responded in a way that can only be described as both terrified and enthralled.
Tracing through the past 50 years, African Americans have been able to join and dominate the ranks of the players and entertainers in American sports, but have been resolutely denied admission as "decision makers." In 2008, African Americans while dominating the fields of play in number and talent, represent only a sliver of those in power. Scarcely a minority face can be found amongst U.S. professional team owners, or amongst collegiate presidents and athletic directors. Many powerful men and women have spoken out in connection with this dearth of minority representation amongst American sports power brokers, including spokespersons both sublime and unrestrained. One powerful man that could no longer abide the unconscionable deficiency of minority representation amongst American sports power brokers was Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr.
Johnnie Cochran is widely considered the most prolific trial lawyer of his generation. Cochran, while notorious for his successful representation of Orenthal James Simpson in the murder trial of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman, deserves much greater notoriety for a career devoted to social justice, equality and contempt for racism and the status quo. In fact, one of Cochran's greatest achievements occurred at the twilight of his life and career. Following on the heels of his successful defense of O.J. Simpson in the criminal trial, Cochran returned to his legal roots of social justice and civil rights. What enfolded thereafter is a case study of the type of social change that can be orchestrated once a passionate individual reaches a state of influence and prestige that simply cannot be ignored.
The day that Johnnie Cochran and class action plaintiffs' attorney Cyrus Mehri walked into National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue's office, and demanded that Tagliabue lead a social movement in the NFL, is a day that should be remembered and hallowed in a career full of memorable days and hallowed victories. Cochran and Mehri 'encouraged' a professional sports league commissioner to do the right thing and what ensued from that interaction has become very nearly remarkable.
The adoption and promulgation of the Rooney Rule ensued.
andré douglas pond cummings, Pushing Weight, 33 T. Marshall L. Rev. 95 (2007).