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‘If you change the sport, you change the society’

GAMES CHANGERS: Cyrus Mehri (left) and Keith Curle

REPUTATION IS critical to anyone who works within law, and Cyrus Mehri has certainly built one up.

The New York-based lawyer who helped establish the National Football League’s (NFL) ‘Rooney Rule’ – a 2003 sporting law that requires all American football clubs to interview at least one minority candidate for head coach or general manager positions – is a prominent legal authority on race, gender and equality issues in corporate America.

The New York Times said his “vision for corporate America involves sweeping change, not the piecemeal kind.” In 2001, Mehri was named as one of “Washington’s 10 most feared lawyers”, and two years later was dubbed “Corporate America’s Scariest Opponent.”

On many counts, the 51-year-old’s reputation precedes him.
Landmark settlements won against giant US firms Texaco and Coca-Cola put Mehri’s name on the map and enabled him to set up his own legal practice. It was his passion for sport and civil rights that drove him on to redesign the NFL’s landscape. “I just woke up one day and said this is something I want to do,” Mehri told The Voice.

It was a journey he began ten years ago at a time when “there were only two black head coaches, and there was not a single general manager who was African-American” in the NFL. Such figures strike an uncomfortable parallel to today’s climate in British football, where there are only three black managers among the 92 league clubs.

Chris Powell, Chris Hughton and Keith Curle are rarities – such disproportionate numbers of black coaches have forced authorities and those concerned about equality to cast their eyes to the other side of the Atlantic, examining how Mehri’s successful Rooney Rule could be introduced here.

In order to make the NFL sit up and take notice, Mehri co-wrote a report called Black Coaches in the NFL: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities, which did not only offer a “critique the short-comings of what the clubs were doing, but we also came up with a solution,” the lawyer, born to Iranian parents who emigrated to the US, explains.

It was a solution, which Mehri called “a fair competition proposal.”

The NFL was receptive to it after carefully reading his original report.

“We championed the idea to interview a diverse slate of candidates, because we didn’t want to say who to hire, and we didn’t want to say, ‘hire X amount of black head coaches by Y date’, we didn’t want anything that was a kind of quota situation,” Mehri points out.


LEADERSHIP: Dan Rooney

“We said we want a level playing field for competition. The Rooney Rule is a more inclusive process, because it increases the competition; sport is about competition,” he says with steely conviction.

Yet the question remains whether Mehri’s vision, which has been a resounding success in America, can be implemented in the UK for football clubs. The crux of the matter, according to the lawyer, is “professionalising the hiring process”, and this is something British clubs have thus far resisted.

“This took a long time, to educate the public in the US,” says Mehri, who cannot disguise his frustration at the length of time it is taking British football authorities to take his “merit based, wide net system” of recruitment seriously.

“I’ve always said it can happen, but I believe it’s going to be slower than what happened in the US.

“So far it’s taken longer than I thought it would. Maybe we are the more new, pioneering country, but it seems the path [in the UK] is a longer path,” the civil rights attorney says.

There is one critical ingredient that is needed to bring about such sweeping changes, Mehri emphasises. “It requires leadership. And right now the strongest leader I have seen in the football community is Gordon Taylor of the PFA. He was the one who invited me over to create this educational effort… that’s strong leadership.

“But that’s only one piece of the puzzle,” he adds, before highlighting that others must step up if change is to occur. “I think the least supportive has been the Premier League, because they’ve had a closed-minded approach. They haven’t really tried to understand it, and they’ve had people make comments which show they don’t understand it.

“They think it’s about telling people who to hire or quotas, when it’s in fact it’s the exact opposite,” Mehri says.

Nonetheless, he retains optimism that British football can change, particularly when people like Lord Herman Ouseley, “a real leader”, are around. “He’s really an impressive person,” Mehri says of the Kick Out It chairman. “People should be engaged with leaders like him and Mr Taylor, and keep this issue alive.”


PRAISE: Lord Herman Ouseley

Dan Rooney, the owner of NFL club Pittsburgh Steelers, embodies the internal leadership that was required to make Mehri’s ideas a reality. There were many naysayers to the lawyer’s grand scheme; Mehri says he often heard comments like ‘you don’t have a prayer, there’s no chance things are going to change.’

“And they probably wouldn’t have changed if there wasn’t leadership from within, like a Dan Rooney, who stepped forward and said, ‘we can do better, we will do better.’”

Mehri now wants Rooney to be a role model to British club owners, and he has a special message for them: “If they want to win, then diversity is the path to winning. Being inclusive and having more competition, and a more professional hiring process, will lead to more wins and a bigger fan base.”

The legal maverick sees ramifications that go beyond getting more minority coaches involved. “Sport is so central to society – if you change the sport, you change the society,” says the man who has imprinted his vision across both corporate America and the nation’s favourite sport.

Whether this country’s most popular sport is willing to get on board remains to be seen.

“It’s not going as fast as I would like,” Mehri concludes, “but it’s going in the direction I think it should be going.”

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