Race Issues: Brian Flores’s Lawsuit Shines Light on Racist NFL Hiring Practices

On Feb. 1, former Miami Dolphins’ head coach Brian Flores sued the National Football League (NFL) and three teams – the Miami Dolphins, Denver Broncos, and New York Giants – alleging racial discrimination in his interview processes with Denver and New York, as well as his firing last month by Miami.

The lawsuit came after the shocking firing of Flores, who led the Dolphins’ first back-to-back winning seasons since 2003 in his first two years as their head coach, bringing to question the reasoning behind this decision. Flores claims that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross bribed him to purposely lose games to improve Miami’s draft position, with Ross allegedly offering Flores $100,000 for every loss that season. Flores refused to partake in this exchange, wanting to lead his team to victory with integrity. 

Additionally, Flores claims that Ross pressured him into recruiting a “prominent quarterback” at the end of the 2019 season, which the coach refused, so as not to violate the NFL’s tampering rules. Ross then allegedly invited Flores onto a yacht for lunch in the winter of 2020, where he informed him that the quarterback was “conveniently” arriving for an impromptu meeting. Flores refused the meeting and left the yacht. Afterward, Flores asserts he was held out as someone who was “noncompliant and difficult to work with,” echoing stereotypes Black and Brown individuals face in the workplace. 

Flores also claimed that the Giants interviewed him last month for their head-coaching vacancy for the sole purpose of satisfying the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for a head coach, general manager or coordinator position. Three days before Flores’ scheduled interview with the Giants, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick sent Flores a text congratulating him for landing the job. Belichick stated he heard from “Buffalo & NYG that you are their guy,” the text exchange showed. But hours later, Flores asked Belichick to clarify whether he meant to text him or Brian Daboll, the Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator also in the running for the Giants’ head coaching position. Belichick acknowledged his error and informed Flores that the Giants wanted Daboll, “Sorry — I fucked this up,” Belichick responded to Flores, according to screenshots. “I double-checked and misread the text. I think they are naming Brian Daboll. I’m sorry about that.” 

Belichick’s mistake revealed to Flores that the Giants had already made up their mind despite his interview not yet taking place, demonstrating that the Giants were simply going through the motions of the Rooney Rule to satisfy its diversity requirement with Flores being the first minority candidate to interview for the position. Flores alleges that a similar scenario occurred when he interviewed with the Broncos for their head-coaching job in 2019, further demonstrating that Black candidates might not be getting a real shot at the jobs for which they’ve been nominated.

According to the lawsuit, in twenty years under the Rooney Rule, there have been approximately 129 head coaching vacancies. Of those, just 15 were filled by Black candidates. Data show a huge racial discrepancy between NFL players and coaches. In 2021, roughly 71% of the players in the NFL were people of color, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

The past 10 years have shown a very similar pattern in other leadership positions. Further up the chain of command, in the general manager’s office where head coaching hiring decisions are made, of 37 general manager hires from 2012 to 2021, 31 went to white men. In that same decade, NFL teams hired 119 offensive coordinators and 107 of those positions went to white men. White men held the majority in defensive coordinators, as well, capturing 61 of 100 defensive coordinator spots. The gap in the offensive coordinator numbers is especially noteworthy, as the NFL is driven by scoring, and offensive coordinators are often singled out for being creative and inventive and are often promoted to head coach. Of the 62 head coaching jobs filled between 2012 and 2021, 31 had been offensive coordinators, and only 18 had been defensive coordinators.

Flores told CBS Mornings that the Rooney Rule is not working as intended, and with only one active Black head coach in the NFL, the “numbers speak for themselves.” He continued, “the Rooney Rule is intended to give minorities an opportunity to sit down in front of ownership, but I think what it’s turned into is an instance where guys are just checking the box.” The Rooney Rule may have been created with good intent, but it is now being used as a smokescreen for owners to claim that they seriously considered a minority candidate.

In the lawsuit, Flores offers several measures the league could take to better ensure that Black coaches are getting the opportunities they deserve. These include more Black individuals involved in the decision-making processes of NFL teams, increasing objectivity and transparency in hiring and firing decisions by having teams write out their reasoning for such decisions, and creating and funding a support system to help lower-level Black coaches advance towards a coordinator position. However, if any effective change is going to come, it will have to start with the league being ready to engage with the problem head-on, a practice that needs to be reflected in the NFL and beyond.