Former Dolphins coach Brian Flores’ lawsuit could mark a watershed moment in the NFL but his highlighting of the league’s disparity in hiring is an issue Black coaches have been grappling with for decades.
Flores’ suit against the NFL and three teams including the Dolphins alleges racial discrimination in its hiring and firing process, the latest reckoning for a league that has been criticized for its lack of promotion and retention of minority coaches.
Coaches came out in the days to follow, sharing their own experiences – former Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis recalled a 2002 interview with the Carolina Panthers in which it had already been reported the team planned on hiring John Fox.
“I think Brian is very frustrated, he’s upset about how things were done, treated, how things have unfolded with him in order for him to get to this point,” Lewis told the Miami Herald in a phone interview. “And obviously he felt very strong that he had grounds to stand upon.
“There’s no doubt about it, the coaches that blazed the trail before me were very frustrated and guys that are my peers,” added Lewis, whose 16 years in Cincinnati made him the longest-tenured Black coach in NFL history. “They’re all frustrated about the opportunity and now these African-American coaches are like, ‘What’s up?’ They keep saying, ‘You’ve got to do this, this and this’ and there’s certain steps you’ve got to take. And other people are hired without necessarily going through those steps.”
All nine of the NFL’s coaching vacancies were filled as of Monday night, with two minority coaches getting opportunities: the Dolphins’ Mike McDaniel, who is biracial, and the Houston Texans’ Lovie Smith, who is Black. It increases the number of minority head coaches to five, including the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, New York Jets’ Robert Saleh and Washington Commanders’ Ron Rivera.
Brian Flores missed out on this year’s coaching cycle — which he acknowledged could be the case as he pursues litigation — as did Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who has been passed for head coaching opportunities for several years.
In a league that is 70 percent composed of Black players and with 35 percent of assistant coaches being Black, the perception is the league has remained stagnant — and perhaps taken a step back — despite the implementation of the Rooney Rule in 2003 and its subsequent updates.
Initially requiring teams to interview a minority candidate for all head-coaching vacancies, the Rooney Rule — named after Dan Rooney, the Steelers’ former owner and chairman of the league’s diversity committee — was expanded to require two external minority interviews for head coaching opportunities, as well as one minority interview for coordinator and senior-level positions like general manager.
Commissioner Roger Goodell and senior league staff had a virtual meeting Monday with Rev. Al Sharpton and other civil rights leaders, who reportedly called for a replacement of the Rooney Rule and establishing “specific recruiting and hiring procedures for executive and coaching positions, with meaningful consequences for violators.”
The meeting came days after Goodell sent a memo to NFL teams, calling the league’s track record with hiring minority coaches “unacceptable” and announcing the NFL would retain outside experts to “reevaluate and examine all policies, guidelines and initiatives relating to diversity, equity and inclusion, including as they relate to gender.”
The issue in disproportional hiring is multifaceted, coaches and experts say, with problems stemming from the coaching pipeline, mentorship and ownership.
In 2020, Maryland football coach Mike Locksley launched the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches, whose mission is to “prepare, promote and produce” qualified, minority coaches at all levels of football. Tomlin, Dolphins general manager Chris Grier, former Baltimore Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome and Alabama coach Nick Saban are among the coalition’s board members.
Locksley referred to a “moving goalpost” in terms of the qualifications decision-makers are seeking in head coaches.
“At one point, it was access to the quarterback room,” he said. “And then we start pushing and developing and programming and training minority coaches to work in the quarterback room. And then they hire special teams coordinators and receivers coaches to be head coaches. … The outcomes of the hiring cycles continue to show the same issue.”
Locksley’s nascent organization has had success in two short years, pairing 13 minority coaches with influential athletic directors and football figures in a mentorship program. Three coaches who are a part of the program — Marcus Freeman (Notre Dame), Tony Elliott (Virginia) and Jay Norvell (Colorado State) — received head coaching opportunities in recent months.
The coalition has reached out to the NFL when head coaching opportunities open, Locksley said, sending lists of qualified, minority coaches but access issues remain. Locksley is hoping there’s more transparency in each team’s hiring process, which Flores’ lawsuit seeks as it also pursues unspecified damages.
“You’re never going to tell somebody who owns a club who to hire. That’s not going to work, either,” Lewis said. “But let’s continue to put qualified people in front of them so they can make a very educated decision.”
Retention and second opportunities for minority coaches is also a point of emphasis, but one that’s harder to pinpoint. Smith on Monday became the first minority to have three different head-coaching stints in the NFL. Flores’ lawsuit pointed out the Arizona Cardinals firing Steve Wilks after one season in which he finished 3-13 but keeping Kliff Kingsbury after a 5-11 rookie season; Wilks has yet to get another head coaching job.
Lewis called the conundrum of second chances “dumbfounding,” noting that many of the league’s best coaches achieved their success after their first stint.
To date, no other coaches have joined Flores’ lawsuit, but his lawyers expressed confidence that some will come forward eventually.
Alex Piquero, chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Miami, has studied the intersection of race and sports, including in the NFL. Factors such as years of playing and coaching experience could help better understand the disparity in hiring, he said, but whether Flores can show discrimination — that he was not hired over a white candidate because he is Black — remains the test.
Whether Flores’ lawsuit can advance in the legal process remains to be seen, but it’s already forced the NFL’s hand, which could result in substantive improvements to the league’s diversity policies and hiring track record.
“I see it as coach Flores throwing a challenge flag at the NFL hiring process,” Locksley said. “You look at how the NFL created a system to make the games fair with the challenge flag and being able to get the calls right on the field. I think what this lawsuit does, from a big-picture standpoint, it’s him throwing a challenge and saying, ‘We want the league to create a system that makes it transparent, fair and open for minority coaches to compete when these jobs come upon that we haven’t been able to get.’”