America’s most popular sport has long featured a stark racial disparity: Those who run the plays are overwhelmingly people of color, while those who call the plays — and the owners who reap profits from the game itself — are predominantly white.
A lawsuit filed Tuesday by former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, who is Black, could force a reckoning.
Flores’ class action lawsuit alleges that racial discrimination “is part and parcel to the League’s standard operating patterns, practices and/or policies.” It sent shock waves through the sports world both for its unsparing portrait of the historical and current racial disparities in the NFL, and for Flores’ specific allegations.
In the suit, Flores said he was subjected to a “sham” interview last month for a head coaching job with the New York Giants. Under the so-called Rooney Rule, a self-imposed mandate by the league, teams must interview minority candidates when filling coaching spots. Text messages apparently sent to him by Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick three days before Flores’ interview (and included in Flores’ suit) indicated the Giants told Belichick they had already chosen a white coaching candidate for the spot.
The claims Flores makes in his suit aren’t limited to racism. He also alleges that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross told him “that he would pay [Flores] $100,000 for every loss” in order to achieve a higher draft pick for the team.
In response to Flores’ suit, the Giants have said Flores “was in the conversation to be our head coach.” The Dolphins said “the implication that we acted in a manner inconsistent with the integrity of the game is incorrect.” Ross has denied the bribes-for-tanking allegation. The NFL said it was committed to equitable employment practices and will “defend against these claims, which are without merit.”
The lawsuit uses stark language to describe racial inequities within the league, which Flores alleges is “segregated and is managed much like a plantation.” The complaint says of the NFL:
“Its 32 owners — none of whom are Black — profit substantially from the labor of NFL players, 70% of whom are Black. The owners watch the games from atop NFL stadiums in their luxury boxes, while their majority-Black workforce put their bodies on the line every Sunday, taking vicious hits and suffering debilitating injuries to their bodies and their brains while the NFL and its owners reap billions of dollars.”
Grid spoke with N. Jeremi Duru, a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law who has been involved in equal opportunity initiatives involving the NFL for two decades. Duru is the author of “Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL,” a definitive history of the development of the league’s Rooney Rule.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: Were you surprised to see this lawsuit was filed? Were you surprised by the allegations contained within it?
N. Jeremi Duru: I was surprised the lawsuit was filed. I wasn’t surprised about the allegations, just because the underlying statistics that you read in the complaint shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody. Black head coaches have shorter tenures than white head coaches. Black head coaches after winning seasons are more likely to be terminated than white head coaches. Black head coaches are less likely to get a second head coaching job than white head coaches are.
Those statistics shouldn’t be surprising. Twenty years ago — when we were just beginning this battle, when the Rooney Rule was implemented — a study came out that showed that Black coaches won more games in the season in which the Black coach was hired, and in the season in which the Black coach was fired, and overall. And still were less likely to get head coaching jobs.
So the statistics have been there. What’s surprising is that somebody — in this case, a very promising and accomplished young coach — recognizing what he undoubtedly does, that this could be a huge career risk — was willing to step up, bring these statistics to light, wrap them around his experience and file a lawsuit.
G: What’s at stake here for Brian Flores?
NJD: A lot. There’s a good possibility that he won’t work as a head coach in the league again. Now, it’s possible that he will. But based on the record of those who come out strongly and publicly — and, certainly, legally — against major sports organizations in this country, with respect to racial discrimination, I think it’s quite likely that he won’t.
So that’s principally what’s at stake [for Flores]. But the other piece of what’s at stake is his opportunity to do something that nobody really has been able to do, which is truly shake up the sports industry when it comes to equal opportunity. If you saw his requested systemic relief in his complaint, you saw that he’s not doing this as a matter of trying to enrich himself.
He requests unspecified damages if he’s successful, which is standard. But he also requests numerous items of systemic reform — which is not always standard. He’s trying to make the league better for others. He’s trying to get the league to put in place mechanisms designed to increase the number of people of color in the highest echelons of the league, and try to get us to a place where there is a Black-owned franchise in the league.
G: What is your assessment of the case from a legal strategy perspective?
NJD: I think the question to ask in a lawsuit like this isn’t whether it looks like he’s going to win before a jury. That question can be asked down the road. As a procedural matter, the question to ask now is whether he can survive the motion to dismiss, which is inevitably coming. Defendants will always file a motion to dismiss, to basically crush the case before you can get deep into the evidence.
If he’s able to survive a motion to dismiss, the next step in litigation is the discovery period, where he is entitled to request from the defendants all documents and communication, reports and other information related to the lawsuit.
If he’s able to get past the motion to dismiss and request those documents, those items, then we’re going to see what lies behind, perhaps, the New York Giants’ hiring decision that resulted in him being subjected to a sham interview. We’re going to see what internal communications there were among members of clubs and among front office folks at the league. And it’s those communications that may end up making the case that could result in success down the line before a jury at the end of the day.
G: What are the potential implications that you see for the NFL — and possibly beyond the NFL in the sports world as a whole — that might come from this case?
NJD: I think the first and biggest is a recognition on the part of the NFL and sports organizations more generally that people aren’t afraid to stand up if they feel that they’ve been wronged. I think that there’s a general sense that if you stand up against an organization in sports, you probably won’t work in sports again just because the community is so small. Well, this shows that at least Brian Flores is willing to take that risk.
It may well be — I’ve not talked to Brian — that he gained that courage from watching Colin Kaepernick take his risk. Kaepernick is no longer in the NFL, he probably won’t play in the NFL again, [but he has] had a tremendous impact. And he’s financially secure. He’s made it, and he’s OK.
So I think the biggest thing that this shows is that people are willing to stand up and speak their mind and bring actions when they think that they’ve been wronged. And are not afraid of the consequences in a way that I think, maybe a decade ago, that wasn’t the case as much.
G: What are the potential ramifications of Flores’ allegation that he was instructed by the owner of the Miami Dolphins to “tank” games in order to achieve a higher draft pick?
NJD: They could be enormous. I don’t think that there has ever been an allegation that an owner of a club has sought to bribe his head coach to lose. That is a totally different level and I think raises all sorts of questions.
If proven, it is without question conduct detrimental to the integrity of the NFL — which is the NFL’s standard for, basically, the worst thing you can do to it. And I think should trigger — again, if proven — unprecedented sanctions.
The other potential consequence is: What happens if the direction to lose is shared with outsiders? Now, as you might imagine, could this impact gambling? The ramifications are a parade of horribles that could follow. This is something I think the NFL has to take extremely seriously. And I’m certainly hoping that they do.
Former Browns head coach Hue Jackson came out and said something not quite as stark as what Flores said, but something quite similar. So is it possible that this is a relatively well-recognized phenomenon across the league?
If that’s the case, then the fans are not getting what the fans thought they were getting. The very core of sport is that you have competition that produces a winner out of a battle between entities giving it their all. If you don’t have that dynamic, then what are we doing?
G: As noted in Flores’ lawsuit, there were three Black head coaches when the Rooney Rule was instituted almost 20 years ago. Today, of course, there is one — Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers. How successful has the Rooney Rule been in advancing the cause of equal coaching opportunity in the NFL?
NJD: It’s a really good question you ask, and I think it needs to be parsed. The Rooney Rule itself, I believe, is a strong rule. It is conceptually sound. The idea is that you have to interview one person of color before making the hiring decision. In the NFL [it] is now two people of color, but you get the idea.
The idea is that you have a diverse candidate slate. And then at the hiring [point], you do what you want. But you let people in the room who would not previously have been able to get into the room, and you give them a chance. I don’t think that that concept has been weakened by any of this.
I think the failures that have led to where we are today are twofold: One, individual clubs totally flouting the rule, totally disregarding the rule as the Giants allegedly did. And two, when a club has flouted the rule, the NFL has not enforced the rule and penalized the club. There have been several instances going back over the last decade and a half where it’s been pretty clear a club has flouted the rule.
The consequence, I think, is that clubs have concluded for the most part that it’s not that big a deal. That the league isn’t that concerned about this equal opportunity initiative that it put into place, we can kind of conduct our interviews how we want without regard to it. That’s what I think produced this circumstance that we see allegedly unfolding with the Giants and Flores.
So the rule I think is a good rule. Clubs have failed to implement it, and the NFL has failed to penalize the clubs when they have failed to implement it.
G: Do you expect the NFL will look like a different organization by the time this litigation runs its course?
NJD: That’s a tough question. [It’s] hard to answer because we don’t know how long it will take the litigation to run its course. We don’t know whether it’s settled before it gets very far down the line. We don’t know, when it does run its course, what the outcome will be. So it’s hard to say what the NFL will look like, but I’ll say this: This lawsuit has the potential to change the NFL in a way that no lawsuit has in quite some time.