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Will the Brian Flores lawsuit force a racial reckoning for the NFL?

History of the league shows that nothing else will work

“In certain critical ways the NFL is racially segregated and is managed much like a plantation. Its 32 owners — none of whom are Black — profit substantially from the labor of NFL players, 70 percent of whom are Black.”

Excerpt from Brian Flores’ lawsuit against the NFL

In one bold and unprecedented lawsuit, former NFL head coach Brian Flores has become the Black coaching equivalent of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

But while Kaepernick took a knee in 2016 to protest racism and injustice, Flores is taking the NFL to court. Unlike Kaepernick, who ultimately settled his lawsuit with the league, Flores seems intent on making this brawl public. It’s about time.

The question is whether the NFL owners will do to Flores what they did to Kaepernick. Will they blackball him?

Flores, who served as the Miami Dolphins head coach for three seasons before being fired last month, said in a statement Tuesday that he understood what is at stake. “I may be risking coaching the game that I love and that has done so much for my family and me. My sincere hope is that by standing up against systemic racism in the NFL, others will join me to ensure that positive change is made for generations to come.”

So here we have it. Just as the NFL is preparing to celebrate its Super Bowl extravaganza with thousands of media descending on Los Angeles, league officials may have to spend the next two weeks answering questions about the Flores lawsuit, which levels potentially devastating charges against the NFL and Flores’ former team, the Dolphins.

In the lawsuit, Flores claims that the writing was on the wall for his tenure when he refused owner Stephen Ross’ directive to lose games in order to get the first pick in the draft. Flores made the explosive claim in the lawsuit that Ross told Flores “that he would pay him $100,000 for every loss” and the team’s general manager Chris Grier told Flores that Ross was angry that Flores’ success in winning games that year was compromising Miami’s draft position. Grier is African American.

Predictably, the NFL and the Dolphins have denied Flores’ claims.

Tony Dungy, former NFL and Hall of Fame head coach and broadcaster, said in his circles the reaction to Flores’ lawsuit has been “total denial.”

“You can tell by the reaction, most people are in total denial,” Dungy told me Tuesday. “It’s going to be tough for people to grasp what he is saying. It’s frustration what these guys see,” Dungy added, referring to Black coaching candidates. “They see a double standard of how things are done. He’s just bringing his thoughts out in the open.”

Dungy became head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1996 and was fired in 2001, despite having a winning record and leading Tampa to yet another playoff appearance. He coached the Indianapolis Colts for seven seasons and led the team to a Super Bowl title in 2007. Essentially what Flores is saying with the lawsuit is that the time for talk and promises are over. The only thing the NFL’s multibillionaire team owners respond to — have ever responded to — is force and the threat of public embarrassment. Indeed, the NFL is way beyond doing the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing.

The lawsuit states: “Mr. Flores has determined that the only way to effectuate change is through the courts, where the NFL’s conduct can be judged by a jury of Mr. Flores’s peers.”

A class-action discrimination lawsuit filed by a Black NFL coach is unprecedented.

The lawsuit contains a number of damning accusations that, if proven to be true, confirm what many of us always suspected but could never prove. For example:

  • That in many cases, head-coaching decisions were already made before Black candidates came in for interviews.
  • That Black candidates were often put through sham interviews so teams could fulfill the Rooney Rule requirements, then hire the white coach they wanted all along.

According to Flores’ lawsuit, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick told Flores three days before his interview with the New York Giants that Brian Daboll had already been selected for the job. Belichick apologized to Flores in a subsequent email. “Sorry — I f—– this up. I double checked and misread the text. I think they are naming Brian Daboll. I’m sorry about that. BB.”

Flores’ lawsuit points out familiar statistics:

  • Only one of the NFL’s 32 teams (3%) employs a Black head coach.
  • Only four of the NFL’s 32 teams (12%) employ a Black offensive coordinator.
  • Only 11 of the NFL’s 32 teams (34%) employ a Black defensive coordinator.
  • Only three of the NFL’s 32 teams (9%) employ a Black quarterback coach.
  • Only six of the NFL’s 32 teams (19%) employ a Black general manager.

As Flores wrote in his lawsuit: “The NFL remains rife with racism, particularly when it comes to the hiring and retention of Black Head Coaches, Coordinators and General Managers. Over the years, the NFL and its 32-member organizations [the “Teams”] have been given every chance to do the right thing. Rules have been implemented, promises made — but nothing has changed. In fact, the racial discrimination has only been made worse by the NFL’s disingenuous commitment to social equity.”

The relationship between Black people and the NFL has often been a marriage of convenience, with progress only being brought about by pressure.

From the time it was formed in 1920, the NFL, first known as the American Professional Football Association, has had a complicated relationship with Black players. A “gentleman’s agreement” among the owners kept Black players out of the NFL from 1934 until 1946. Even when Kenny Washington and Woody Strode joined the Los Angeles Rams in 1946, their presence was brought about by civic pressure.

When the Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles in 1946, the team wanted to play in publicly funded Los Angeles Coliseum. The city’s Los Angeles Coliseum commission and local African American newspapers pressured the Rams to desegregate the team. The team subsequently signed UCLA stars Washington and Strode.

Last year, Dungy, as part of an assignment for NBC, wrote an open letter to owners saying he had faith in them, that he believed they would do the right thing because history suggested they eventually would do the right thing for the benefit of the league. “You went through this with Black players in the ’40s and you changed and the game was better. We went though it with Black quarterbacks in the ’80s and you changed and look how the game is better.”

I asked Dungy if he still had faith in team owners.

“I’m losing it because I see the same thing happening,” he said. “I see guys who are really good candidates not get jobs and I see other guys with the same credentials get jobs. Last year, we had four Black coordinators in the Super Bowl. In years past, Super Bowl coordinators would also be the hot guys.”

None of the four was hired.

Black players have become the foundation of the NFL. In 2020, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell gushed that, “Without Black players, there would be no National Football League.”

Note that Goodell said Black players, not Black head coaches.

Flores’ unprecedented suit will likely be the impetus to overhaul the Rooney Rule. More than that, the lawsuit will be the next assault on the NFL’s granite wall of resistance to African American progress in the league.

The walls eventually will come tumbling down, but at what price?

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.