Cochran’s Legacy Lies In The Settles’ Case

By Gregory Moore
Updated: March 30, 2005

Johnnie Cochran was a champion in the war of injustice and he proved that in his fight with the NFL on hiring black coaches.

SAN ANTONIO – I was just stunned when I heard the news that famed attorney Johnnie Cochran passed away. A good majority of us found about this orator of the trial courts during the O.J. Simpson trial and a few of us actually remember him as he represented former child star Todd Bridges and Michael Jackson. A few sports fans may actually remember him as the lawyer who helped Ray Allen in his contract negotiations a while back as well. Yet none of these stories really compel me as much as do the story of how he represented a young man by the name of Ron Settles. Why does this story stand out for a sports columnist? Because it was Cochran’s drive to deliver to Settle’s parents that engulfs me and I think it’s the one sports legacy that he should be remembered for.

How many of you actually know the story of what happened to Settles? For those that don’t I want to briefly bring you abreast of a troubling time that could have happened anywhere but it happened in California; namely Signal Hill. Picture this if you will. A star athlete in a trendy sports car drives through a town that Blacks have always warned their children to avoid at all costs. This athlete heeds the warning because it would be quicker to drive through the small town on his way back to his college campus rather than go around the town. The athlete is picked up by police for a traffic ticket, arrested for supposedly resisting arrest and later is found dead in the jail cell. That is what happened to Settles. That is his story. It didn’t sit well with his parents the first time it happened and it didn’t sit well with Cochran, who took up the civil case to find the truth.

Now maybe today’s Black community is immune to the plights of victims of racism but in the sports world these stories are more common than you think. There is still racism in the smallest back road town and the only reason why a young man of color might even get a small glimmer of acceptance is because he either shoots the rock extremely well or runs the pigskin like the wind. Where do such communities exist? Everywhere from the smallest town in Mississippi to the biggest city in the country. Cochran’s battle for the Settles family at that time was a battle for racial justice and the story is still felt today. But how can a lawyer who won a case so many years ago have anything to do with the problems of today’s athletics? Well plenty if you look at what his representation of high profile athletes when they were in trouble mean but more importantly he also was very instrumental in at least forcing the NFL look at their minority hiring practice.

Injustice in any form seemed to be the fuel for Cochran’s court battles. For the Settles’ family, that injustice came in the form of a police officer or officers killing their son for no reason but hatred. When it came to wanting to sue the NFL on the behalf of minority coaches not getting a fair shake in the head coaching practice, Cochran’s threat actually helped individuals like Cincinnati Bengals’ Marvin Lewis and Chicago Bears’ Lovie Smith. These and other current NFL minority coaches who were recently hired could actually look to Cochran for at least bringing this issue to light even though a civil case never materialized.

And that is what makes Cochran’s legacy in the sports world more viable. As flamboyant as he may be and as charismatic as he has shown, the one thing that any of his former clients can say is that Johnnie Cochran believed in his job. That dedication bode well for him at two crucial times in sports world history; in 1981 when the Settles’ case was finally brought to a civil trial and just a few years ago when he and others wanted to force the NFL to look at their hiring practices for head coaches. As miniscule as the latter may have been, it is equally revered when he won his other more high profile cases.

The sports world will miss Johnnie Cochran because he was indeed a man who could have brought so much more to the sports world by enlightening us on the injustices of the very thing we love. He will be missed but somewhere out there is another man or woman just like him. In that fact the fire that burned in Cochran will one day be seen again. Rest in peace JC…. rest in peace.