Does the NFL Have a Racism Problem?

USA Today Sports

Earlier this week, former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores dropped a bomb on the NFL. The projectile arrived in the form of a 58-page lawsuit alleging a culture of institutional racism in the league that has manifested itself most clearly in the selection of head coaches and front office executives.

While reading the complaint, it is easy to start feeling overwhelmed by the weight of uncertainty. The claims are damning, and if you have been even remotely connected to the sports world over the last few days, you have likely heard them. Flores asserts he was offered nothing more than sham interviews over the course of multiple hiring cycles. As evidence, he cites a 2019 meeting with the Broncos in which Denver executives arrived one hour late and appeared “completely disheveled,” and the plaintiff speculates his interviewers were drinking the previous night.

Flores also highlights his interview experience with the New York Giants during this hiring cycle, making public a text exchange with Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. In the texts, Belichick congratulated Flores for securing the position with the Giants, noting that he heard “from Buffalo and NYG that you are their guy.” Since he has no affiliation with Buffalo but his competitor for the job, Brian Daboll, served as the Bills’ offensive coordinator, Flores asked Belichick if he was texting the correct Brian.  Belichick, perhaps realizing his mistake, texted an apology and said he misread his texts: Brian Daboll was the winning candidate, not Brian Flores –

So the Giants picked another applicant, one who was eminently qualified for the position and who had generated interest from other franchises in previous hiring cycles. What’s the big deal? Well, Brian Flores was scheduled to interview for a job that was technically still open, and he states in his complaint that fulfilling the requirements of the Rooney Rule was the only reason why the Giants were continuing to engage with him.

The Rooney Rule, named after late Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, is a league-wide policy adopted in 2003 to address the dearth of minority hiring for key positions in the NFL. ESPN writer Brooke Pryor included a detailed description of the guidelines in a recent piece:

The Rooney Rule’s enhanced policies, which were adopted in October, include a requirement for each team to interview at least two external minority candidates for a vacant head coach, general manager or coordinator job. Clubs must also conduct an in-person interview with at least one external minority candidate for any general manager or head coach position.

Flores further alleges that Black head coaches who secure head coaching roles are subjected to unfair standards and arbitrary terminations. He shines a spotlight on his recent experience with the Dolphins, maintaining that owner Stephen Ross tried to incentivize tanking while chasing the top pick in the draft during the 2019 season. Flores shares that Ross offered to pay the head coach $100,000 per loss. He further affirms that Ross asked his head coach to meet with a star quarterback during the offseason who was not yet a free agent, in violation of the NFL’s tampering regulations.

Again, the specific allegations outlined by Flores are devastating for the NFL if they are true. If they are true. And therein lies that weight of uncertainty.

Speaking generally, the media has a difficult time covering legal actions like the Flores lawsuit. When the documents are initially filed, there is a rush to explore every detail and bring on panels of experts and analysts to describe with all the gravitas they can muster what the allegations say about the league and what the ramifications ought to be if the claims are substantiated. There will of course be the requisite caveats offered, but they are but a detour before the speculation begins.

And then, typically a day or so later, the other parties to the litigation play their parts. The NFL quickly dismissed the Flores lawsuit in a statement, labeling the allegations of discriminatory hiring practices “without merit.” The Giants have issued their denials, laying out the timetable of their hiring process and asserting that Flores was a candidate to the very end. For his part, Stephen Ross has called the claims of his former employee “baseless, unfair, and disparaging,” while the Broncos and John Elway strongly denied Flores’s “defamatory” contention that Denver executives were disengaged and hungover during their interview with the prospective candidate.

At this point, we simply do not know who is telling the truth, and, until the claims and allegations are tested through a grueling discovery process and vetted in a courtroom, they remain just that: claims and allegations. Even after the proceedings conclude, we may never get firm answers.

Ambiguity does not play well in this hyperreactive, hyper-engaged world in which we live, with armies of anonymous internet commenters sharing their thoughts with the world under their various digital noms de plume. So certain are their views of the forest, they think they can tell you what every tree looks like. If only life were so easy.

What we do know, what is indisputable, and what is the most damning aspect of the lawsuit are the cold, hard numbers, the barren fields of a two-decade policy that was supposed to provide abundant harvests.

At this moment, there is only one Black head coach in the NFL, whose active membership and living retirees are 70% and 60% Black, respectively. That coach, Mike Tomlin, has patrolled the Pittsburgh Steelers’ sideline since 2007, establishing himself as one of the best in the business. According to the AP, since the Rooney Rule’s implementation, just 21% of head-coaching vacancies have been filled by minority candidates.

Flores was handed a pink slip this offseason despite delivering the first back-to-back winning campaigns for the Dolphins in nearly twenty years. His colleague in Houston, David Culley, was fired by the Texans after one year despite delivering a 4-win season with arguably the worst roster in the NFL, a product of serial mismanagement by predecessor Bill O’Brien. Culley, who was forced to compete with star quarterback Deshaun Watson engaged in a part-holdout, part-exile while his murky legal situation is resolved, battled with a depleted lineup to the very end. Houston knocked off the playoff-contending Chargers toward the end of the season before taking the AFC’s best regular season team, the Tennessee Titans, to the wire in the season finale. During that time, Culley and his quarterbacks coach, Pep Hamilton, molded third-round rookie Davis Mills into a serviceable NFL signal caller.

Meanwhile, the Texans are apparently intent on hiring Josh McCown, a former quarterback with zero professional or college coaching experience. Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio even reported Houston was hoping another team would offer McCown an interview in order to legitimize their own interest.

Before McCown there was Joe Judge, a charismatic if unproven commodity as a head coach who nevertheless wowed the Giants with his charm and his Belichick pedigree. After another losing season for Big Blue, Judge was out, the third Giants boss in a row to be canned after a two-year stint. Before Judge there was Kliff Kingsbury, the college offensive wunderkind at Texas Tech who nevertheless struggled to field a competitive team in the Big 12. As a result, he was dismissed in Lubbock but garnered interest from executives in the professional game looking to imitate the success of the Kansas City Chiefs and Kingsbury’s former Red Raiders quarterback, Patrick Mahomes. The Arizona Cardinals dismissed Steve Wilks after one season before hiring Kingsbury and selecting Kyler Murray to replicate the the Kansas City magic in the desert. So far, the experiment has struggled to find the same traction.

In this context, it seems eminently reasonable to agree with the conclusion the Flores legal team reached in their assessment of the Rooney Rule:

However, well intentioned or not, what is clear is that the Rooney Rule is not working. It is not working because the numbers of Black Head Coaches, Coordinators and Quarterback Coaches are not even close to being reflective of the number of Black athletes on the field. The Rooney Rule is also not working because management is not doing the interviews in good-faith, and it therefore creates a stigma that interviews of Black candidates are only being done to comply with the Rooney Rule rather than in recognition of the talents that the Black candidates possess.

The rules designed to level the playing field have just created more bitterness. An opportunity does not mean equal opportunity, and the resulting frustration of Black coaches who feel stifled in their advancement through the ranks should not be cavalierly dismissed.

The Flores lawsuit should provoke a long-overdue re-evaluation of the head coach hiring process specifically. The Rooney Rule has outlived its usefulness and should be discarded. Removing the requirement to interview minority candidates will eliminate the possibility of a “sham interview.”

Instead, examine why a promising candidate like Eric Bieniemy, who possesses a resume at least as impressive as Kingsbury’s and more extensive than McCown’s, continues to be passed over. Why are Buccaneers’ coordinators Todd Bowles and Byron Leftwich still in Tampa Bay after three years of distinguishing themselves as excellent coaches? Will former coaches Jim Caldwell and Marvin Lewis ever get another chance, or will a longtime coordinator and position coach like Pep Hamilton ever win over an ownership group the way Judge once did?

Why is Brian Flores, an excellent coach still in the prime of his career and a current candidate for at least two openings, willing to risk everything by pursuing a lawsuit that may not be successful?

Take some time to examine the work of the late sociologist Devah Pager, whose work examining racial bias in hiring decisions presaged much of the controversy currently enveloping the NFL.

 

Owners and front office executives can take comfort in the processes they have established to identify and hire head coaches, but the poor results speak for themselves. Some organizations find themselves regularly dipping into the coaching pool, returning every year or two to find the next great savior to lead their franchise from the pit of mediocrity to the promised land of Super Bowl contention.

Maybe what these organizations are doing isn’t working, and their seemingly objective and exhaustive searches aren’t consistently identifying the best candidates, some of whom might happen to be Black.

There will emerge a major backlash to this push for greater inclusion from people who will wonder — with some justification — why there should be any racial discrimination, positive or negative, in hiring decisions. Shouldn’t the best person be given the job? Affirmative action is, after all, an inelegant solution to a longstanding problem.

Perhaps they will point to the oft-cited quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream”
Speech:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

But the entire speech is worth revisiting in full, particularly this earlier pearl of wisdom:

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.

We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.

In order to arrive at the dream of a race-blind future, we need to wrestle with the reality of the present. For the NFL, this requires a comprehensive reassessment of a process that has resulted in a stunning lack of diversity in the head coaching ranks. The answers to these entrenched problems won’t come easy, but a more equitable process ultimately will be beneficial for the league and a coaching profession that has more talent than these searches are uncovering.

The promise of progress was offered twenty years ago, and it is unfair to ask Black coaches to wait any longer for actionable results. The time for painting “End Racism” in the end zones and placing affirmative messages on the back of helmets is at an end. The NFL must address the systemic issues underpinning the Flores lawsuit, and they must do so with nothing less than “the fierce urgency of now.”

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