By Danny R. Johnson – Washington, DC Correspondent
In a damning 58-page class-action lawsuit against the NFL, Brian Flores presents screenshots of a text-message exchange that crystallizes the dilemma Black coaches routinely find themselves in: They are supposed to play along with a hiring system that officially requires teams to consider minority candidates for top jobs but that, in practice, is biased against them.
Flores, recently fired as the Miami Dolphins head coach, was considered a top candidate for the New York Giants’ head-coaching job. In late January, the New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, Flores’s former boss, sent Flores a text congratulating him on being hired by the Giants. The problem, however, was that Flores had not even interviewed with the team yet.
Belichick quickly realized his error. “Sorry—I fucked this up,” Belichick texted. “I double-checked and misread the text. They are naming Brian Daboll. I’m sorry about that.” At a point when Flores, who is Black, thought he had a real shot at the Giants job, the word was spreading among NFL insiders that it had already been filled.
The accidental revelation was a crushing blow to Flores—and was one more unfortunate example of how NFL owners have made a mockery of the league’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minority candidates for head-coaching jobs and front-office positions. Daboll, another assistant who served under Belichick, is white. The Belichick-Flores exchange suggests that the Giants were interviewing Flores only to satisfy a requirement and not because he had just led the Dolphins to their first consecutive winning seasons since 2003—which, ironically, is the same year the Rooney Rule was instituted.
For Flores, concluding that he had been granted only a token interview with the Giants prompted him to file a lawsuit in a Manhattan federal court last week. (The Giants have denied that the interview was a sham and insisted that Belichick was offering only his own opinion.) Appearing on ESPN’s morning show Get Up the next day, Flores said: We did not have to file a lawsuit for the world to know there was an issue. We need change. That was the No. 1 reason. I know there’s sacrifice, there is the risk to that, but we need change at the end of the day. I know many capable Black coaches who I know, when given an opportunity, will do an excellent job during their interview. This is not about me. It is bigger than football. This is about equal opportunity for qualified Black candidates—not just in football but everywhere, in all industries.
The lawsuit also names the Giants, the Dolphins, and the Denver Broncos. Flores accuses the Broncos of disingenuously interviewing him for their head-coaching position in 2019 and Stephen Ross, the Dolphins owner, of offering to pay him $100,000 to lose games for a better draft pick. (The Broncos and the Dolphins also deny Flores’s allegations.)
By going to court, Flores could force a historic reckoning for the NFL. The league avoided being sued for its discriminatory hiring practices back in 2002, when a report commissioned by the attorneys Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie Cochran Jr. found that Black coaches were not being hired at the same rate as their white counterparts, despite outperforming white coaches when given head-coaching opportunities.
Mehri and Cochrane threatened to file a class-action lawsuit against the NFL then, but as a compromise, the league created what became known as the Rooney Rule.
Nine head-coaching positions were open when this recent hiring cycle began, and this week two teams hired a minority candidate as their head coach—the Dolphins hired Mike McDaniel, who is multiracial. The Houston Texans chose Lovie Smith, who is Black. Before this week, a minority coach had yet to be hired.
Outwardly, these hires might suggest progress. But even Smith’s belated emergence as a candidate for the Houston job underscores the obstacles Black applicants face. Smith was not even on the Texans’ radar until magically he was. NBC Sports recently reported that the finalists included Flores, whose lawsuit against the league and three of its franchises took him out of the running, and Josh McCown, a white journeyman NFL quarterback whom the Texans appeared eager to hire even though his only coaching experience is as a volunteer at a high school. NBC hypothesized that widespread attention to Flores’s suit made someone as inexperienced as McCown an untenable choice. So, the Texans turned to Smith, who was Houston’s assistant coach and defensive coordinator. Smith is a respected coach who in 2006 guided the Bears to the Super Bowl. He was most recently a head coach in 2015 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Before this week, only three of the most recent thirty-three head coaches hired were Black—and all three of those coaches were later fired, including Flores.
If Flores has already made NFL owners think more deeply about who they are hiring, the ripple effect might be more significant still if more Black candidates join his lawsuit.
Flores, who is jeopardizing his career to make a much more significant point, is hardly the first Black coach to be written off before even getting a chance to interview. Suppose other Black coaches do not support him vehemently. In that case, Flores might meet the same fate as Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who began kneeling during the national anthem at games in 2016 to protest police violence against Black people.
Kaepernick’s protest has ended his football career. While a few players knelt with him, including Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills and then–49ers safety Eric Reid, Kaepernick’s close friend, most players chose not to get involved. (Full disclosure: I have signed on as a producer of an ESPN documentary series about Kaepernick that he and the director Spike Lee are collaborating on.)
Had significantly more players been willing to support Kaepernick, the league and its owners would have had a more challenging time ostracizing him and Reid. Both left the 49ers and eventually filed grievances accusing the NFL and its owners of colluding to freeze them out because of their protests. The NFL settled the complaint. But no other team has signed Kaepernick. Reid was signed by the Carolina Panthers but cut after the 2019 season, despite being the second-leading tackler. He, too, remains unsigned. The implicit lesson is that people who speak up may never work in professional football again.
That is why it is incumbent on Black coaches besides Flores to help end the NFL’s charade of inclusion. Initially, the NFL responded defensively to Flores’s lawsuit. “We will defend against these claims, which are without merit,” the NFL statement read.
But last Saturday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo to every team reiterating the league’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. Goodell wrote: “There is much work to do, and we will embrace this moment and seize the opportunity to become a stronger, more inclusive league.”
So now Goodell is admitting that there is a problem. As usual in the NFL, Goodell is taking the public-relations hit for something that is not exactly up to him to solve. Flores is asking a federal court to recognize a clear pattern of discrimination and demand accountability for it. The blame lies squarely with the league’s owners, who have already shown that they will go only as far as they are forced to.