Former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores is suing the NFL for being run ‘like a plantation’, in an effort to highlight systemic racism in America’s richest sports league.
Earlier this week, former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores took an extraordinary step by filing a lawsuit against the National Football League (NFL) and three of its teams – the Denver Broncos, New York Giants and Dolphins – alleging a pattern of racist hiring practises.
Flores, who is Black, says the NFL “is racially segregated and is managed much like a plantation”. For Black Americans, the reference of “plantation” evokes the history of chattel slavery.
In a surprising move, Flores was fired by the Dolphins last month despite leading the team to back-to-back winning seasons, a first for the franchise since 2003.
He filed a class-action suit on Tuesday in a Manhattan federal court and alleges that the Giants engaged in a “sham interview” process with him in January for their head coach vacancy only to fulfil the Rooney Rule.
Adopted by the NFL in 2003, the Rooney Rule states that teams must interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching vacancies.
In the 58-page suit, Flores alleges that he was offered a $100,000 bonus for every game the Dolphins lost under him during the 2019 season to secure a higher draft position in 2020. He was told that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross was “mad” after the team’s victories as it was “compromising [Miami’s] draft position.”
Flores says that he was “treated with disdain and held out as someone who was noncompliant and difficult to work with” and subsequently cast as an “angry Black man”.
Flores also alleges that renowned New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick “mistakenly disclosed” to him in a text message exchange on January 24 – three days before Flores was set to interview with the Giants – that the organisation intended to hire former Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.
The Giants officially announced Daboll’s hiring two days after interviewing Flores.
Flores said Wednesday on CBS Mornings that he experienced a range of emotions, including “humiliation, disbelief, anger” following Belichick’s messages.
“I’ve worked so hard to get to where I am in football, to become a head coach, for 18 years in the league,” Flores said, “to go on what was gonna be or what felt like or what was a sham interview, I was hurt.”
The Giants co-owner John Mara said the organisation’s hiring process and consideration of Flores was “serious and genuine”.
“We are disappointed to learn that Mr. Flores was under the mistaken impression the job had already been awarded,” Mara said in a statement.
Both the candidates hired by the Broncos and Giants are white with no head coaching experience.
Flores is still a candidate for two head coach vacancies with the New Orleans Saints and the Houston Texans. He said he does not intend to drop the suit if hired by either franchise, insisting he is speaking up in order to effect change throughout the league.
Flores’ suit states that he is seeking, among other changes, increased influence of Black individuals in hiring, as well as incentivising the hiring and retention of Black general managers, head coaches and coordinators.
“I know there’s sacrifice, there’s risk to that, but at the end of the day, we need change,” Flores said.
“This isn’t about me. It’s bigger than football. This is about equal opportunity for qualified Black candidates – not just in football but everywhere, in all industries.”
Former Dolphins head coach Brian Flores joined @GetUpESPN to discuss his decision to sue the NFL and three teams, alleging racism in hiring practices.— ESPN (@espn) February 2, 2022
"We need change. ... We need to change the hearts and minds of people making those decisions." pic.twitter.com/HnlTHtZ2t5
The uphill fight for diversity
In stating that the NFL is “racially segregated” and “managed much like a plantation,” Flores is alluding to the disparity in power balance between the league’s players and managerial posts.
Out of the NFL’s 32 team owners, who “profit substantially from the labor of NFL players” who regularly put their bodies on the line, none are Black. Meanwhile, 70 percent of NFL position players are Black.
Only one NFL boss who has full ownership is non-white, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Shahid Khan, who is Pakistani-American. Kim Pegula, who is Asian-American, is part-owner of the Bills.
Out of the current 27 coaches in the league, only one is Black – the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin. The only other non-white coach is the New York Jets’ Robert Saleh, who is Lebanese-American and just completed his first year on the job.
Sports analyst and broadcaster Chris Broussard called Flores’ decision to put his future coaching career on the line to fight systemic racism by taking on the richest sports league in the country as unfortunate but “totally necessary”.
“It’s been proven time and time again, that just not only in football but many aspects of society, some whites won’t hire African Americans in fair or representative numbers, unless they’re forced to,” he said on Fox Sports morning program First Things First.
Broussard added the discrimination Black coaches are facing now is a continuation of what Black players have had to endure historically in the NFL.
“Before, they were told they couldn’t play the middle linebacker and the center position. Up until a couple decades ago, they couldn’t play quarterback. Those were the ‘cerebral’ positions,” he said.
Coaching and front office positions are the last remaining bastions of whiteness, Broussard argued, because they’re seen as the only roles remaining that aren’t based on objective metrics like speed or strength which translate on the field.
The hiring process for coaching and front office positions, then, can be “subjective,” and where prejudice and racism still fester, Broussard added.
This Brian Flores lawsuit against the #NFL is going to resonate throughout sports and be a significant moment in the history of the league. I’ve spoken to two other coaches who believe they have the receipts to be a part of the class. This could be a tsunami before it’s all over.— Charles Robinson (@CharlesRobinson) February 1, 2022
Apart from the NFL, other major US sports leagues like Major League Baseball (MLB) have also had issues with diversity hiring.
Affectionately referred to as “America’s pastime,” baseball appears to still be frozen in time, retaining an overwhelmingly white management structure despite 40 percent players being non-white (primarily Latino or Hispanic).
Of the 40 majority owners, 39 are white men and just one is a person of colour. Upper management positions don’t fare much better, with just four non-white GMs of 30 teams. Only six are head coaches.
A recent study from Arizona State University found that Blacks were more likely than Whites to be fired from MLB managerial jobs and less likely to be rehired.
The National Basketball Association (NBA) fares the best of the big three when it comes to minority representation in coaching and front office positions, as well as social justice initiatives.
Out of the league’s 32 teams, 12 of them have general managers of colour, up from seven the previous year. In addition, people of colour made up over 50 percent of assistant coaches, while 15 teams are led by non-white head coaches.