If former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores gets a head coaching job after his widely publicized lawsuit against the National Football League for “systemic racism,” it will come at the expense of future black head coaches.
In a lawsuit filed February 1 that appeared to be written from the perspective of getting maximum press (even including a Martin Luther King Jr. epigraph on the first page of the filing), Flores accuses the NFL of “following systemic patterns, practices and/or policies that are discriminatory towards the Proposed Class” of black coaching candidates. His lawsuit was released after the New York Giants passed over Flores for Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.
The lawsuit contains a number of interesting tidbits and allegations, including that New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had been informed of Daboll’s hiring even before Flores was slated to interview with the Giants and that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross offered Flores $100,000 per game that Flores threw, so the Dolphins could gain better draft positioning for Tua Tagovailoa in the 2020 NFL draft.
What the lawsuit doesn’t contain, however, is actual proof that the NFL is a systemically racist organization and needs to be punished for discriminatory behavior.
Most of Flores’ allegations don’t come close to proving legally actionable systemic discrimination, which must involve finding racist intent or internal statistical “patterns” of inequity. He points out that the NFL currently employs only one black head coach (and three minority head coaches, counting Ron Rivera and Robert Saleh) in Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers. But judging an organization by one year of results is not actionable.
Race-Norming Is Over
Flores also attacks “race-norming” used in the NFL’s concussion settlement with players to demonstrate the league’s racist malintent. Race-norming is a controversial medical practice that seeks to reduce the number of false positive findings in medical research by normalizing scores to the average of one’s biological race. This is controversial since medical data reveals that the average cognitive score as measured by a battery of tests is lower for a black person than the average score for a white person of similar background.
Yet the medical community frequently endorses the use of biological race to diagnose susceptibility to various diseases (i.e., groups originally descended from Africa have a higher propensity for kidney disease). That is not to say that race-norming doesn’t deserve criticism. Kristen Dams-O’Connor has a point when she says that “race is a terrible proxy for the things that actually matter” in medicine, such as obesity, genetic disease, and stress levels.
It is entirely possible, and likely probable, that NFL adopted race-norming on the advice of the lawyers and doctors they employed, not because of racist malintent. Or, more cynically, they insisted on race-norming to lower the number of players who could file for settlement.
But the NFL already agreed to end race-norming in a $1 billion settlement, and there are valid medical reasons they would try to implement race-norming in the first place. Flores is trying to dishonestly stretch a medical issue into a political one, which lowers his credibility to speak on behalf of black NFL players and coaches.
No Coach Pay Inequity
If that wasn’t enough, Flores then goes after the “disparity” in contracts for white head coaches versus black ones by pointing out the particular case of disgraced former Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden, who lost his job after revelations of text messages that some consider racist, sexist, and homophobic. Sure, Gruden had banked the largest contract deal in history in 2018 in the form of a 10-year, $100 million contract with the Raiders, but at that point he had a long record of coaching and winning, as well as being a commentator on ESPN.
The NFL has been no stranger to giving black head coaches massive deals, either, even with fewer qualifications. In fact, Todd Bowles, who had never been a head coach except in relief, bagged a four-year, $4 million-per-year head coaching deal with the New York Jets in 2015.
Despite being demoted after several losing seasons, he also recently bagged the largest defensive coordinator contract ever for any coach with a three-year, $9 million contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. All this is probably deserved. But Flores’ examples of coach pay inequity do not prove systemic racism of any kind.
‘Rooney Rule’ for Interviewing Candidates
It is Flores’ criticism of the NFL’s diversity practices that will hurt black head coaches’ futures the most. In the lawsuit, Flores goes after the NFL’s longstanding diversity rule entitled the “Rooney Rule,” accusing it of being a “sham” and insisting on a much more radical position of forced hiring of more black coaches and black hiring evaluators.
The “Rooney Rule” is a highly regarded diversity rule that requires NFL teams to interview at least one (with a recent revision, two) non-white candidates before choosing a candidate for head coach. This rule, which was devised in conjunction with the NFL’s diversity group, The Fritz Pollard Alliance, was designed to create more pathways for black head coaches to access the interview process. It was not designed to force NFL owners to hire minority candidates for “equity.”
In fact, Kevin Sheehan of his eponymous popular football podcast noted as much, saying “I do think that one of the intents [of the Rooney Rule]… was to create the process where teams were forced to interview minority candidates because they weren’t interviewing minority candidates on the regular, and that the experience and the exposure that the candidate, that the African-American or minority candidate, would get would be super helpful.”
In ripping the rule, Flores selfishly attacks one of the primary ways black coaching candidates can gain access to valuable experience to build up their knowledge of the NFL interview process.
Creating Unhealthy Dynamic
The really disturbing part of the lawsuit is that, without real evidence the NFL is a systemically racist organization, Flores is creating an unhealthy relationship dynamic between the NFL and the NFL’s many qualified head coaching candidates, such as Leslie Frazier of the Bills, Eric Bieniemy of Kansas City Chiefs, and Bowles of the Buccaneers. With Flores breaking confidentiality norms and going public about his private interview experiences, teams in the future will become more afraid even to bring in minority head coaching candidates for fear that they might retaliate with racial discrimination lawsuits if they don’t get the job, especially with so little real evidence.
After all, Flores just publicly embarrassed Stephen Ross, the owner who employed him for three years, and John Elway, the general manager of the Denver Broncos who considered him for head coach, accusing him of appearing “hungover” for his interview. If there’s one thing you don’t do as a head coach, it is publicly embarrass the owner and general manager of an organization.
Maybe Flores has some valid concern regarding his treatment in the NFL hiring process. But blaming it on his race really shows contempt for the many white coaches who have also been hung out to dry for bad behavior in the NFL.
Take Scot McCloughan, a white former general manager of the Washington Redskins. An anonymous source (possibly former team president Bruce Allen) leaked stories about McCloughan’s alleged drunkenness to tarnish his reputation in an effort to fire him from the organization. That is cold behavior at the top of the NFL, but it wasn’t because of McCloughan’s race. It’s because the NFL unfortunately retains people without integrity.
One can think Flores is a quality candidate who deserves a head coaching job without making his lack of such a job about his race. Unfortunately, Flores chose the low road, the litigious road, on this issue by making unfounded allegations of racism. Even if he personally benefits from making them, the rest of the league’s talented black coaching staff will suffer for his choice.