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Brian Flores’s Lawsuit Has Brought the NFL’s Black Coaching Crisis to Its Boiling Point

Flores’s lawsuit does more than just pull back the curtain on his experiences with racial discrimination in the league. It provides a damning portrait of a culture that has systematically failed Black coaches and executives. What happens next will speak volumes.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

In a 1961 radio interview, writer James Baldwin encapsulated the Black experience in America with a quote that continues to resonate more than 60 years later:

“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a state of rage almost—almost—all the time.”

That rage is akin to a boiling tea kettle. It’s not until after the kettle whistles that it’s paid urgent attention. Brian Flores has reached his boiling point. The football world is paying attention.

On Tuesday, the former Miami Dolphins head coach sued the NFL, filing a 58-page class-action lawsuit that includes accounts of discrimination by three teams: the Dolphins (who fired Flores in January), the New York Giants (whom he interviewed with during this cycle), and the Denver Broncos (whom he interviewed with in 2019). Together, they paint a picture of a league that has systematically failed its Black coaches and executives. “Flores has determined that the only way to effectuate real change is through the Courts,” says the suit, “where the NFL’s conduct can be judged by a jury of Mr. Flores’ peers.”

Let’s start with Miami. The suit says that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross offered to pay Flores $100,000 for each game the team lost in 2019, in a bid to tank to secure the no. 1 pick in the upcoming NFL draft. According to the suit, Flores refused the offer, leading the Dolphins to wins in three of the season’s final five games and netting the franchise the no. 5 pick in the draft instead. Ross “was ‘mad’ that Mr. Flores’ success in winning games that year was ‘compromising [the team’s] draft position,’” the suit says.

The suit also says that after the 2019 season Ross urged Flores to break the NFL’s tampering rules to recruit a “prominent quarterback.” Flores, according to the suit, refused. The suit then details how in the winter of 2020 Ross “attempted to ‘set up’ a purportedly impromptu meeting [on his yacht] between Mr. Flores and the prominent quarterback. Mr. Flores refused the meeting and left the yacht immediately.”

According to the suit, Flores was subsequently “treated with disdain and held out as someone who was noncompliant and difficult to work with” as a result. That description matches up with the narrative following his recent ouster from Miami, which stunned fans and players given that the team had just won eight of its final nine games to cap off back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 2002 and 2003.

“We vehemently deny any allegations of racial discrimination and are proud of the diversity and inclusion throughout our organization,” the Dolphins said in a statement on Tuesday.

That leads to Flores’s experience with the Giants. The 40-year-old was expected to be one of the NFL’s most in-demand head-coaching candidates in this cycle, given his on-field record of success with the Dolphins. Flores interviewed with four of the nine teams that had vacancies. But that doesn’t mean those teams gave him a fair shake. The lawsuit says that the Giants only interviewed Flores to satisfy the league’s Rooney Rule, which calls for teams to interview at least two external minority candidates for open head-coaching jobs. According to the suit, the Giants had already decided who they were hiring before they interviewed Flores.

The lawsuit includes a text thread between Flores and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick that shows how the Giants had selected Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll as their new head coach before Flores’s interview. Three days before Flores’s interview with New York, Belichick texted Flores: “I hear from Buffalo & NYG that you are their guy.” Flores asked whether Belichick had meant to text Daboll, to which Belichick replied: “Sorry - I fucked this up. … I think they are naming Daboll.”

The Giants officially hired Daboll on January 28. In an interview with CBS on Wednesday morning, Flores said that his interview with franchise general manager Joe Schoen was a “sham.”

Additionally, the lawsuit revisits Flores’s head-coaching interview with the Broncos in 2019. According to the suit, then–Denver GM John Elway and others showed up an hour late and “looked completely disheveled, and it was obvious that they had [been] drinking heavily the night before.” The Broncos released a statement Tuesday saying that Flores’s account of events is “blatantly false.”

Flores’s lawsuit is jolting, and not just because of the events it describes. Flores is publicly undressing a problem that has festered in the league for years, and his decision to do so will likely end his coaching career. Nearly five years ago, Colin Kaepernick took the NFL to court and never played another down. Flores seems to accept that he could suffer a similar fate.

“God has gifted me with a special talent to coach the game of football,” Flores said in a statement, “but the need for change is bigger than my personal goals. In making the decision to file the class action complaint today, I understand that I may be risking coaching the game that I love.”

What happens next will speak volumes about the NFL and how seriously it takes its hiring issues. Flores’s lawsuit spurred the league to action in the hours after it began circulating. A statement put forth on Tuesday night said, “The NFL and our 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 problem for the league is that merit doesn’t factor into its decision-making when it comes to Black coaches. There is currently one Black head coach in the NFL (Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers) and 24 white coaches. In 2021, only 34.5 percent of assistant coaches were Black; 57.7 percent were white. The player demographics are nearly inverted: 58 percent of NFL players identified as Black and 25 percent identified as white. Below is a layout of all the league’s head coaches, as included in the lawsuit:

Those photos and statistics make another point made by Baldwin so poignant. “In one’s work, part of the rage is this: It isn’t only what’s happening to you. But it’s what’s happening all around you and all the time, in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference.”

Across the league, Black coaches have been given a smaller margin for error than their white counterparts. David Culley spent nearly 30 years toiling as an NFL assistant (never even as a coordinator) before taking the Texans’ head-coaching job before last season. He led the team to four wins (matching its win total from the 2020 season, when Houston was playing Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt) by fielding a much more competitive squad than almost everyone expected from the league’s least talented roster. Culley oversaw the promising development of third-round rookie quarterback Davis Mills, but was still fired at the end of the season. In a statement announcing the move, Texans general manager Nick Caserio cited “philosophical differences over the long-term direction and vision for our program moving forward.”

In 2018, the Arizona Cardinals fired former head coach Steve Wilks just one season into his tenure after handing him one of the NFL’s worst rosters. Wilks’s successor, Kliff Kingsbury (who posted a career 35-40 record coaching at Texas Tech), didn’t finish above .500 until his third year at the helm. In 2017, the Detroit Lions fired head coach Jim Caldwell, who helped the Colts make the Super Bowl in 2009, led the Lions to two playoff appearances and three winning seasons, and delivered a 9-7 effort in his final campaign. His replacement, Matt Patricia, logged three consecutive losing seasons before the Lions moved on. Prior to Flores, Raheem Morris had been the NFL’s most recent under-40 Black head-coaching hire, all the way back in 2009; the Buccaneers fired him after three seasons, despite Morris’s Bucs finishing 10-6 in 2010.

The bar is higher for Black coaches. The Rooney Rule hasn’t changed that—and no new rule will. It comes down to league ownership and decision-makers fostering change. In recent years, that change not only hasn’t happened; the head-coaching circuit has actually become less diverse than it was in the past. In January, NFL Network’s Jim Trotter said that a team owner told him that if Black people have such a concern over the lack of representation among the league’s head coaches, “they should go buy their own team and hire who they want to hire.”

It’s the quiet part out loud. There has been some progress in terms of teams hiring Black GMs this cycle, with the Bears hiring Ryan Poles and the Vikings hiring Kwesi Adofo-Mensah. In 2021, there were five people of color holding general manager positions, representing 15.6 percent of all general managers (all five men were Black). This was an increase of 9.1 percentage points from 2020. But that doesn’t mean that the same toxic principles that have long underscored Football Culture have undergone a shift. That’s especially true for the owners, none of whom are Black.

In 2020, the NFL did what many companies in the United States did and promised to inspire change in regard to racial justice. Yet its initiatives—which include social outreach and financial commitments—apparently haven’t inspired change internally. Just last year the league admitted to using “race-norming”—assuming Black players started out with lower cognitive function—to determine payouts in concussion claims. Messages of “End Racism” and “It Takes All of Us” scribbled across end zones or on the back of player helmets oversimplify the depths of the racial discrimination issues within the NFL.

“It’s a great temptation to simplify the issues under the illusion that if you simplify them enough, people will recognize them,” Baldwin said. “I think this illusion is very dangerous because in fact, this isn’t the way it works. A complex thing can’t be made simple. You simply have to deal with it in all its complexity and hope to get that complexity across.”

Flores’s lawsuit will force the NFL to deal with its complex and deeply ingrained issues under the eye of public scrutiny. The suit explicitly mentions his goal is to “shine a light on the racial injustices that take place inside the NFL.” There are five points he’d like to see specifically addressed:

  1. Increase the influence of Black individuals in hiring and termination decisions for GMs, head coaches, and coordinators.
  2. Increase the objectivity of hiring and termination decisions for Black GMs, head coaches, and coordinators.
  3. Increase the number of Black coordinators.
  4. Incentivize the hiring and retention of Black GMs, head coaches, and coordinators through compensation.
  5. Complete transparency with respect to pay for all GMs, head coaches, and coordinators.

Flores’s lawsuit could be a landmark moment in the NFL. Yahoo’s Charles Robinson tweeted Tuesday night that at least two coaches believe they have “the receipts to be a part of” the class-action lawsuit. Still, the burden shouldn’t be on Black coaches to decide between building a career or taking a stand to ensure future generations of Black coaches don’t have to. Flores is taking a stand anyway. The question is what the NFL will do now that the boiling point has arrived.