Roger Goodell and the NFL begin their latest tap dance regarding race
Watch what the league does, not what Goodell says in the wake of Brian Flores’ allegations of racial discrimination
LOS ANGELES — The NFL announced quickly that the lawsuit filed last week by former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores — which alleges widespread racial discrimination in the league’s hiring practices and seeks class-action status — is without merit.
Then only four days later, commissioner Roger Goodell revealed in a memo sent to owners that the league understands the concerns expressed by Flores and others, and it will initiate a comprehensive review of its entire approach to diversity, equity and inclusion.
And with that, the tap dance began.
As the NFL prepares this week for Super Bowl LVI on Sunday at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, Flores’ lawsuit has cast another shadow over professional sports’ most successful league. Now, Goodell, as he has done many times before, will attempt to convince NFL observers that they will do everything they can to fix the problem.
During the week leading up to the Super Bowl, Goodell conducts a state of the NFL news conference in the host city. The one here Wednesday figures to be a doozy.
Goodell is expected to field many questions about Flores’ lawsuit, which has put the league on the defensive during the week of its signature event.
The individual allegations in the complaint aside — among other things, Flores alleges that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross offered him cash bonuses to lose games on purpose in an effort to improve the club’s draft position — Flores, who is Afro Latino, calls out the NFL in general for stifling the careers of Black assistant coaches while offering an abundance of advancement opportunities to their white counterparts.
In raising that point, Flores is hardly alone.
During interviews in the past three hiring cycles with The Undefeated, many Black assistant coaches, as well as Black player-personnel officials, have expressed frustration about their overall lack of opportunities to move up while they watch white coaches in similar jobs at the club level steadily climb the ladder. Flores isn’t the first Black NFL employee to consider filing a lawsuit against the league, several Black club employees said.
But they doubted anyone would follow through with the “nuclear option,” because taking such a step would likely end one’s career. After filing his lawsuit, Flores, 40, acknowledged he may be finished in the NFL.
Regardless of whether Flores succeeds in a court of law (he has a high bar to clear, legal experts say), his action encapsulates the zeitgeist of NFL history for the league’s Black coaches and Black officials who aspire to lead franchises in football and business operations. We know Flores’ overall critique of the NFL is correct because Goodell has confirmed it. Repeatedly.
In past Super Bowl news conferences, Goodell has said the NFL must do better in being an inclusive workplace from the front office to the field. And in his memo to the league’s 32 clubs this past weekend, Goodell put a lot on paper.
“[W]e must acknowledge that particularly with respect to head coaches the results have been unacceptable,” the memo read. “We will reevaluate and examine all policies, guidelines and initiatives relating to diversity, equity and inclusion, including as they relate to gender. We are retaining outside experts to assist in this review and will also solicit input from current and former players and coaches, advocates and other authorities in this area.”
Even if Flores hadn’t sued the league, the NFL is long overdue in commissioning a comprehensive analysis of its methods to supposedly foster an inclusive workplace. The numbers tell the story.
Despite all the iterations of the Rooney Rule, the league’s most important hiring tool in its efforts to promote workforce diversity, and all the rhetoric from top officials through the years about the NFL’s supposed commitment to inclusive hiring, the NFL has only two Black head coaches. Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin stood alone until the Dolphins hired former San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel on Sunday to replace Flores. McDaniel is multiracial and joins the Washington Commanders’ Ron Rivera, New York Jets’ Robert Saleh and Tomlin as the league’s only minority head coaches. On Jan. 10, the Dolphins fired Flores after he became the team’s first head coach to have consecutive winning seasons since 2002 and 2003. In 2020, players who identify as Black or African American accounted for 57.5% of players on NFL rosters.
Nine teams will pick head coaches in this hiring cycle. White coaches were chosen for the first six openings filled.
Of the seven openings for head coaches at the beginning of the 2021 cycle, one was filled by a Black man. Over the previous four cycles, there have been 27 openings. During that span, three Black men became head coaches.
For the NFL, this just isn’t a troubling trend. It’s an embarrassment.
Again, just ask Goodell.
“We understand the concerns expressed by Coach Flores and others this week,” the commissioner’s memo to the league read.
“While the legal process moves forward, we will not wait to reassess and modify our strategies to ensure that they are consistent with our values and longstanding commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. In particular, we recognize the need to understand the lived experiences of diverse members of the NFL family to ensure that everyone has access to opportunity and is treated with respect and dignity.”
That sure seems like a whole lot of work to do in response to something that’s without merit.
At Wednesday’s news conference, Goodell will likely toggle between maintaining the league’s official position regarding Flores’ lawsuit while also reaffirming it still has plenty of heavy lifting to do in hiring. If that seems counterintuitive, well, welcome to Goodell’s world.
Goodell recently walked a similar tightrope while defending the NFL’s indefensible treatment of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was banished from the league after he sat and then kneeled to draw attention to police brutality and systemic oppression during the 2016 season. (In 2019, Kaepernick and the NFL reached a confidential settlement in his collusion grievance against it.)
For years, Goodell pushed the company line, essentially saying no teams believed Kaepernick could help them win. It was laughable that none of the league’s 32 teams could use a passer who made 58 career starts and helped San Francisco reach a Super Bowl.
Entering the 2017 season, Kaepernick was only 30. The onetime dual-threat standout still has the ninth-best touchdown-to-interception ratio in NFL history.
Except for fans who disagree with Kaepernick’s politics and the broadcasters and writers who carried the league’s water on the nonsensical Kaepernick-isn’t-good-enough-to-be-on-an-NFL-roster argument, it was clear that something was going on that had nothing do to with football.
Washington’s NFL franchise helped prove that.
After starter Alex Smith suffered a potentially career-ending injury during the 2018 season, Washington signed failed passer Mark Sanchez, then 32. After Sanchez did what Sanchez does, Washington dipped back into the free-agent quarterback market and signed Josh Johnson. At the time, Johnson was also 32 and had not thrown a pass in a regular-season NFL game since 2011.
What’s more, since Kaepernick has been on the outside looking in, the list of ridiculously ineffective quarterbacks who have been signed is as long as it is laughable. It’s as if the league posted a sign in flashing red neon at every stadium that read, “Don’t believe what your eyes are seeing. All of these guys are actually better than Kaepernick.”
Now, Goodell in one breath will say there’s nothing to see on the whole Flores thing, and in the next express compassion for Black NFL employees he acknowledges have been wronged. Talk about a tricky space to navigate.
When it comes to addressing the claims of Black men who allege discrimination in the NFL’s hiring practices, it’s often best to watch what the league does rather than listen to what it says. And by taking major action last week in response to yet another high-profile member of the “family” calling it out, the league again revealed a whole lot.