Lawsuit exposes NFL’s racism, limited chances for Black coaches, executives
By Anisah Muhammad, Contributing Writer
- February 8, 2022
Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores gestures during the first half of an NFL football game against the New York Giants, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
On the first day of Black History Month and with the Super Bowl, the most watched U.S. television broadcast approaching, Brian Flores filed a class-action lawsuit against the NFL and the league’s 32 teams alleging discrimination in their hiring process. In the lawsuit, the former head coach of the Miami Dolphins expressly named the New York Giants, the Dolphins and Denver Broncos.
The exposure of the NFL’s racist hiring practices started with a congratulatory text from Bill Belichick, head coach for the New England Patriots, to Mr. Flores, his former assistant coach.
“Sounds like you have landed – congrats!!” Mr. Belichick texted, according to screenshots included in the lawsuit. “Did you hear something I didn’t hear?” Mr. Flores responded.
Despite finishing last year’s season with eight straight wins for the first time since 2003, Mr. Flores, who is the Black son of Honduran immigrants, was fired as head coach for the Miami Dolphins in January and started interviewing with other teams. He had an interview scheduled for the head coach position with the New York Giants that he thought he had a shot at.
Mr. Belichick told him he heard Mr. Flores was their guy and that he hoped “it works out if you want it to!!” Only, Mr. Flores wasn’t their guy. Brian Daboll, who also served as assistant coach for the Patriots, was their guy. Mr. Daboll is White and has never served as an NFL head coach. He was previously the Offensive Coordinator for the Buffalo Bills.
Despite the text exchange with Mr. Belichick, Mr. Flores proceeded to sit through a dinner with Joe Schoen, the Giants’ newly hired general manager. The next day, Jan. 27, he sat through an extensive job interview, already knowing Brian Daboll was selected for the head coach position.
But that was not Mr. Flores’ first “sham interview,” the lawsuit states. In 2019, he was scheduled to interview with the Denver Broncos. However, the team’s general manager, president and others arrived to the interview an hour late looking “completely disheveled,” appearing that they had been “drinking heavily the night before.”
“It was clear from the substance of the interview that Mr. Flores was interviewed only because of the Rooney Rule, and that the Broncos never had any intention to consider him as a legitimate candidate for the job,” the lawsuit reads. “Shortly thereafter, Vic Fangio, a White man, was hired to be the Head Coach of the Broncos.”
Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores talks to the media before practice at Baptist Health Training Complex in Hard Rock Stadium on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Fla., in preparation for their game against the New York Jets on Sunday. (David Santiago /Miami Herald via AP)
Mr. Flores expressed some of his feelings during an interview with CBS Mornings. “I’m gifted to coach, and I love coaching, and I want to coach. … But this is bigger than coaching. This is much bigger than coaching,” he said.
Another Black former NFL head coach, Hue Jackson also came forward stating that during his tenure with the Cleveland Browns, the ownership and executives intended to lose games during his tenure, making him the fall guy for the team’s poor record. “No, I was never offered money like Brian [Flores] had mentioned,” Mr. Jackson explained in an interview with CNN. “I think this is a totally different situation but has some similarities,” he said.
Mr. Flores said he and his attorneys Doug Wigdor and John Elefterakis filed the lawsuit so that they could create change.
“And that’s important to me. I think we are at a fork in the road. We are either going to keep it the way it is or go in another direction and actually make some real change in where we are, actually changing the hearts and minds of those who make decisions to hire head coaches, executives, etcetera,” he said.
The Rooney Rule and ‘fixing’ the game
The NFL adopted the Rooney Rule in 2003. It originally required every team with a head coaching vacancy to interview at least one or more diverse candidates before making a new hire. It has since expanded to require at least two interviews with non-White candidates and now includes general manager jobs and equivalent front-office positions.
With Mr. Flores’ firing, there was only one Black head coach left in the NFL out of 32, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers. There have only been 15 Black head coaches since the Rooney Rule went into effect 19 years ago and 23 Black head coaches in total from 1989 to the present. Meanwhile, the majority of NFL players, 58 percent, are Black, with 25 percent White, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport’s 2021 Racial and Gender Report Card for the NFL.
Dr. Ketra Armstrong, professor of sport management and director of the Center for Race and Ethnicity in Sport at the University of Michigan, described the Rooney Rule as a “sham,” a “facade,” “window dressing” and “performative.” She told The Final Call that what is being seen from the NFL is hypocrisy.
“When the interests converge on winning, the NFL celebrates Blackness, but they can’t celebrate and recognize Blackness in the role it can play in their leadership and in their ownership,” she said.
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick speaks with reporters before NFL football practice, Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Gary Sailes, a retired professor from Indiana University who continues to teach a course on sports and social justice, told The Final Call the Rooney Rule doesn’t have teeth. He described it as “nothing more than an admirable beginning.”
Though his research has disclosed that Black male coaches have a greater winning percentage than their White counterparts, especially on the college landscape, Black coaches just “don’t have a membership card to the old boys’ network, to the club.”
Dr. Greg Carr, chair of the Africana Studies Department at Howard University, said to The Final Call if the courts allow Mr. Flores’ case to proceed and gets to the discovery phase where witnesses come in, the NFL will be in trouble.
“Because then you depose under oath Coach Bill Belichick who sent those texts. And of course, the first question Flores’ lawyer is going to ask is, ‘Coach Belichick, who were you talking to? Who told you that the White boy got the job?’” Dr. Carr said. “At that point, all hell breaks loose, because now you uncovered what Flores and everybody else was saying all along.”
He explained that usually in employment discrimination cases, courts refuse to equate percentages with behavior and require that the individual demonstrates and shows evidence that he or she was discriminated against. With Mr. Flores’ suit, “It’s not just statistics,” he said, commenting on the screenshots of the exchange.
Dr. Carr believes Brian Flores won’t settle. “He has decided that he’s willing to sacrifice his individual—his individual job security, his individual potential to work in the field that he spent most of his life—on principle,” he said.
The NFL released a statement following the lawsuit, saying their clubs “are deeply committed to ensuring equitable employment practices and continue to make progress in providing equitable opportunities throughout our organizations. Diversity is core to everything we do, and there are few issues on which our clubs and our internal leadership team spend more time. We will defend against these claims, which are without merit.”
The Giants released a statement saying they hired the individual who they felt was most qualified.
Mr. Flores’ lawsuit also alleges that Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross told him in 2019 that he would pay $100,000 for every loss to have first pick in the draft for the next season. The lawsuit states Mr. Ross also began to pressure Mr. Flores to violate the league’s tampering rules by recruiting a prominent quarterback.
The Dolphins released a statement saying they deny any allegations of racial discrimination and that “the implication that we acted in a manner inconsistent with the integrity of the game is incorrect.”
Gary Sailes said the allegations can’t be proven without a recording or an email, but that there’s always been conversation about intentionally throwing games to get a high draft pick.
“Without hard evidence, Brian is going to look like the bad guy here, because the league can just deny, deny, deny, deny,” he said. “We call that gaslighting. The league can just gaslight as much as they want, whether it’s true or not.”
According to ESPN, Mr. Jackson said the Browns had a “four-year plan” that incentivized losing during the first two years; bonus money was available if certain measurables were met such as aggregate rankings, being the youngest team and having so many draft picks. He said that plan led to his 1-31 record during the 2016 and 2017 seasons, which gave Cleveland the No. 1 overall draft pick in back-to-back years, the sports network reported.
Mr. Jackson said he told Browns owner Jimmy Halsem that what the team was doing “would hurt every Black coach that would follow me,” reported ESPN. Mr. Jackson, now head football coach at Grambling State University, an HBCU, also stated he had evidence to support his claims. The Cleveland Browns refute the allegations.
Meanwhile, former and current players have expressed support for Mr. Flores and the reality facing Black coaches on social media and sports talk shows.
Colin Kaepernick and NFL’s history
For many, Brian Flores’ lawsuit is a reminder of what former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick faced after taking a knee during the national anthem to protest and draw attention to police brutality in 2016.
“You saw this in how they handled the Colin Kaepernick situation, for a man just protesting against police brutality. And you saw how the owners handled him, that he even had to sue all of the NFL owners for denying him a job,” said Nation of Islam Student Minister Darryl Muhammad of Macon, Ga., who has coached football.
He said Mr. Kaepernick’s actions started to peel back the onion “so that you could see the raw, naked hatred, good ol’ boy racism” that was not only exhibited by the owners but also by fans and some of the White players.
In the lawsuit, Mr. Flores described the NFL as “racially segregated” and “managed much like a plantation.”
Dr. Carr was driving in Nashville, Tenn., listening to a White, conservative talk show when he heard one of the guests say, “In the NFL, the players are slaves.”
“And he said, ‘Well, because the fans who go to NFL games are largely White because of the price of the tickets and they cost so much money. So, you have rich White people in the stands. And then on the field, you got players and they make money. They make a lot of money, and they should get compensated because they are athletes and they’re professionals and they should be compensated. However, the owners own them,’” Dr. Carr recounted.
“This wasn’t me. This wasn’t The Final Call. This wasn’t BET or Black News Network or Roland Martin,” continued Dr. Carr. “This was a White man talking to another White man in the South on a conservative AM radio talk show who said the players are slaves on the plantation in the NFL.”
Beverly Aiken-Muhammad, wife of Nation of Islam former Student Fruit of Islam Captain Tim Muhammad of Atlanta, Ga., has been watching football since she was 13. At that time, she said, there were no Black coaches, no Black quarterbacks, and most of the players on defense, offense and special teams were White.
In this Oct. 2, 2016 file photo, from left, San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold, quarterback Colin Kaepernick and safety Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Santa Clara, Calif. A new poll shows that most white Americans disapprove of athletes protesting during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
“When you look at Flores, you have to say it’s about time that we had a lawsuit like that, because he’s not just filing a lawsuit about becoming a coach,” she said. “He’s filing a lawsuit against being fired in the name of other coaches that came before him, which no one ever hears about.”
Throughout her life, Ms. Aiken-Muhammad has called a few games, and as a parent, she helped coach the offensive line and special teams at her son’s high school in Washington, D.C. She recounted some of the history of Black coaches in the NFL, one being Dennis Green, who coached the Minnesota Vikings for 10 seasons and had eight playoff appearances.
“He had one bad season because they traded all the good football players, and they fired him,” she said.
Ms. Aiken-Muhammad said Mr. Flores, who has four Super Bowl rings on his belt and turned around the Miami Dolphins, “one of the worst teams” that “everybody had given up on,” has every right to sue the NFL.
Houston Texans former head coach David Culley, who is Black, was also recently fired after just one season of coaching what Min. Darryl Muhammad described as a “trash team.”
Several sports media outlets reported the Texans had Josh McCown, who is White with no head coaching experience at any level as a finalist for their head coach vacancy. At Final Call presstime, several news outlets reported that the Texans were set to name Lovie Smith, who is Black as their next head coach. Mr. Smith, had two previous head coaching jobs with the Chicago Bears, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and was the current defensive coordinator with the Texans.
But there are already some analysts questioning if Smith, like Culley is merely a “transitional” coach and is possibly being set up to fail. The Dolphins named Mike McDaniel the San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator, who reportedly identifies as “multi-racial” to replace Mr. Flores. Critics point out this does not solve the ingrained, deep-rooted racism that permeates the NFL.
“You have had White coaches that have been a failure everywhere else but then they keep getting a second chance and a third chance. And this is part of his lawsuit, that the Black coaches don’t get the opportunity” even if they might be more qualified, ” said Min. Darryl Muhammad.
A Black NFL
As a part of the lawsuit, Brian Flores is calling for several things to happen: increase the influence of Black individuals in hiring and termination decisions for general manager, head coach and offensive and defensive coordinator positions; increase the number of Black offensive and defensive coordinators; incentivize the hiring and retention of Black general managers, head coaches and offensive and defensive coordinators through monetary, draft and/or other compensation such as additional salary cap space; and complete transparency with respect to pay for all general managers, head coaches and offensive and defensive coordinators.
There are only two non-White NFL owners: Shahid Kahn, Pakistani, who owns the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Kim Pegula, Asian, who co-owns the Buffalo Bills.
Gary Sailes advised Black people who want to own an NFL team to look at the model used by Michael Jordan, who is the majority owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets, and Magic Johnson, part-owner of the LA Dodgers in Major League Baseball.
To see change, Dr. Armstrong is advocating for training in conscious bias and holding teams accountable for representation. She also said Black coaches and Black athletes need to be prepared for leadership through the establishment of developmental pipelines that would nurture and hone Black talent.
Several of those interviewed by The Final Call said for effective change, Black players have to unite and take a stand to stop playing games, and Black fans need to boycott the NFL. Min. Darryl Muhammad said, Blacks need to create their own football league. He echoed words from the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, the Eternal Leader of the Nation of Islam, on Black people pooling their resources.
“If you got the Black athletes, those are the ones who are making money for them. Then now, you have all of these rappers, all of these entertainers. When you look at Jay-Z, when you look at Oprah Winfrey, when you look at a lot of them who are billionaires … as the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad said, we can pool our resources, unite and start our own league,” he said.
He commended Brian Flores for being willing to risk his coaching career to make it better for those coming behind him.
“That’s a noble thing. He already knows the price that has to be paid, and he’s willing to sacrifice himself. That’s what any other great leader would do, Jesus on down to Minister Farrakhan, to make things better for others coming behind him,” he said. “So, if there is any great change that will come, he will always be talked about and he will always be remembered.”