The NFL’s Black Coaches Should Stop Playing Along

They are expected to put up with a hiring system that, in practice, is plainly biased against them.

A black-and-white photo of Brian Flores in profile
Mark Brown / Getty

About the author: Jemele Hill is a contributing writer at The Atlantic.

In a damning 58-page class-action lawsuit against the NFL, Brian Flores presents screenshots of a text-message exchange that crystallizes the dilemma Black coaches routinely find themselves in: They’re supposed to play along with a hiring system that officially requires teams to consider minority candidates for top jobs but that, in practice, is plainly biased against them.

Flores, recently fired as the Miami Dolphins’ head coach, was considered to be a top candidate for the New York Giants’ head-coaching job. In late January, the New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, Flores’s former boss, sent Flores a text congratulating him on being hired by the Giants. The problem, however, was that Flores hadn’t even interviewed with the team yet.

Belichick quickly realized his error. “Sorry—I fucked this up,” Belichick texted. “I double checked and misread the text. I think they are naming Brian Daboll. I’m sorry about that.” At a point when Flores, who is Black, thought he had a real shot at the Giants job, word was spreading among NFL insiders that it had already been filled.

The accidental revelation was a crushing blow to Flores—and was one more unfortunate example of how NFL owners have made a mockery of the league’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minority candidates for head-coaching jobs and front-office positions. Daboll, another assistant who served under Belichick, is white. The Belichick-Flores exchange suggests that the Giants were interviewing Flores only to satisfy a requirement and not because he’d just led the Dolphins to their first consecutive winning seasons since 2003—which, ironically, is the same year the Rooney Rule was instituted.

For Flores, concluding that he’d been granted only a token interview with the Giants prompted him to file a lawsuit in a Manhattan federal court last week. (The Giants have denied that the interview was a sham and insist that Belichick was offering only his own opinion.) Appearing on ESPN’s morning show Get Up the next day, Flores said:

We didn’t have to file a lawsuit for the world to know there’s an issue. We need change. That was the No. 1 reason. I know there’s sacrifice, there’s risk to that, but at the end of the day, we need change. I know many capable Black coaches who I know, when given an opportunity, will do a great job during their interview. 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.

The lawsuit also names the Giants, the Dolphins, and the Denver Broncos. Flores accuses the Broncos of disingenuously interviewing him for their head-coaching position in 2019 and Stephen Ross, the Dolphins owner, of offering to pay him $100,000 to lose games for a better draft pick. (The Broncos and the Dolphins also deny Flores’s allegations.)

By going to court, Flores could force a historic reckoning for the NFL. The league successfully avoided being sued for its discriminatory hiring practices back in 2002, when a report commissioned by the attorneys Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie Cochran Jr. found that Black coaches weren’t being hired at the same rate as their white counterparts, despite outperforming white coaches when given head-coaching opportunities. Mehri and Cochrane threatened to file a class-action lawsuit against the NFL then, but as a compromise the league created what became known as the Rooney Rule.

Nine head-coaching positions were open when this recent hiring cycle began, and this week two teams hired a minority candidate as their head coach—the Dolphins hired Mike McDaniel, who is multiracial, and the Houston Texans chose Lovie Smith, who is Black. Before this week, a minority coach had yet to be hired.

Outwardly, these hires might suggest progress. But even Smith’s belated emergence as a candidate for the Houston job underscores the obstacles that Black applicants face. Smith wasn’t even on the Texans’ radar, until magically he was. NBC Sports recently reported that the finalists included Flores, whose lawsuit against the league and three of its franchises took him out of the running, and Josh McCown, a white journeyman NFL quarterback whom the Texans appeared eager to hire even though his only coaching experience is as a volunteer at a high school. Widespread attention to Flores’s suit made someone as inexperienced as McCown an untenable choice, NBC hypothesized. So the Texans turned to Smith, who was Houston’s assistant coach and defensive coordinator. Smith is a respected coach who in 2006 guided the Bears to the Super Bowl. He was most recently a head coach in 2015 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Before this week, only three of the most recent 33 head coaches hired were Black—and all three of those coaches were later fired, including Flores.

If Flores has already made NFL owners think more deeply about who they’re hiring, the ripple effect might be greater still if more Black candidates join his lawsuit.

Flores, who is clearly jeopardizing his own career to make a much more significant point, is hardly the first Black coach to be written off before even getting a chance to interview. If other Black coaches don’t support him vehemently, Flores might meet the same fate as Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who began kneeling during the national anthem at games in 2016 to protest police violence against Black people.

Kaepernick’s protest has essentially ended his football career. While a few players knelt with him, including Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills and then–49ers safety Eric Reid, Kaepernick’s close friend, the majority of players chose not to get involved. (Full disclosure: I have signed on as a producer of an ESPN documentary series about Kaepernick that he and the director Spike Lee are collaborating on.)

Had significantly more players been willing to support Kaepernick, the league and its owners would have had a harder time ostracizing him and Reid, who both left the 49ers and eventually filed grievances accusing the NFL and its owners of colluding to freeze them out because of their protests. The NFL settled the complaint. But no other team has signed Kaepernick. Reid was signed by the Carolina Panthers but cut after the 2019 season, despite being the team’s second-leading tackler. He, too, remains unsigned. The implicit lesson is that people who speak up may never work in professional football again.

That’s why it’s incumbent on Black coaches besides Flores to help end the NFL’s charade of inclusion. Initially, the NFL responded defensively to Flores’s lawsuit. “We will defend against these claims, which are without merit,” the NFL statement read.

But on Saturday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo to every team reiterating the league’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. Goodell wrote: “There is much work to do, and we will embrace this moment and seize the opportunity to become a stronger, more inclusive league.”

So now Goodell is admitting that there’s a problem. As usual in the NFL, Goodell is taking the public-relations hit for something that isn’t exactly up to him to solve. Flores is asking a federal court to recognize a clear pattern of discrimination and demand accountability for it. The blame lies squarely with the league’s owners, who have already shown that they’ll go only as far as they are forced to.