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TDBH: Diversity advocates honor Mike Brown with highest honor
February 24, 2018 05:00 AM | Geoff Hobson

INDIANAPOLIS - When Bengals president Mike Brown receives the 2012 Game Ball from the Fritz Pollard Alliance here today in a reception during the NFL scouting combine, John Wooten can throw it all the way back to Paul Brown's Cleveland Browns of 50 years ago. Wooten, chairman of the Alliance that seeks to diversify the coaching and front-office ranks of the NFL, is a guard on Brown's last four teams after he's drafted in 1959. "The award goes to a person who has made a difference in leveling the playing field for minorities," Wooten says. "And it's a tradition that goes back to Mike's father."

Wooten's generation looks to the Browns like they did baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers. While Jackie Robinson breaks baseball's color line in 1947, Brown signs future Hall of Famers Bill Willis and Marion Motley in 1946 to help break pro football's barrier. But it still isn't easy in the early '60s. Wooten recalls trips to Dallas, where there is only one hotel that allows integration. And since there are no integrated movie theaters, Brown eschews his weekly ritual and keeps the team in the hotel the night before the game as the players watch coin-operated TV sets. "We stayed in that one hotel; we stayed together," Wooten says. "We talked to black guys on other teams and they said they had fights in the shower and were called racial slurs. We never had that. It was because of Paul Brown. He said, 'We're not black, we're not white, we're Browns and that's how we're going to act.' "

That's why Wooten has Brown's daughter, Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn, a member of the NFL's diversity committee, present her father with the award. Blackburn, Mike Brown, and the Bengals are key figures in the early days of the Alliance and the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview a minority for a head coaching job. As the rule is being formed in December 2002, it is unclear how owners will embrace it but the Bengals go ahead and interview Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis twice before making him the club's first African-American head coach. "Mike did a good job. He did it very well, very professional," says Pittsburgh's Dan Rooney, author of the rule, at the 2003 scouting combine where the Alliance is born. "I talked to him several times and I commend him. He's the guy that did it."

With Lewis heading into his 10th season, he'll end the year breaking Dennis Green's record for the longest tenure by an African-American head coach with the same club. Green coaches 159 regular-season games from 1992-2001 in Minnesota while Lewis has worked 144 since '03. Wooten cites Brown's decision in sticking with Lewis after the 4-12 season in 2010 and reaping the benefits with a play-off berth in 2011. "Showing that faith in Marvin Lewis gave them the chance to get into the playoffs," Wooten says, "and in addition showed his ability as an NFL executive to get his team into the playoffs despite losing his No. 1 quarterback and veterans at key positions like Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens."

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