Twenty years ago on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, there was one black head coach in the National Football League, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin. Tony Dungy in Tampa and Dennis Green in Minnesota had been fired earlier that January. This year on MLK Day, the NFL had just one black head coach, Tomlin.
Former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, who had been fired in January, filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court in Manhattan Feb. 1, charging the Dolphins, Giants, Broncos and the NFL with discrimination against black head coaches and executives.
This comes despite the league’s Rooney Rule, which was implemented in 2003. Crafted by civil rights attorney Cyrus Mehri along with the late Johnny Cochran, the Rooney Rule requires NFL organizations to interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching vacancies. The rule is named after Dan Rooney, the former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers who pushed the adoption of the initiative in 2002.
Mehri told Zenger on Feb. 2 that he was not surprised that the NFL’s poor record of hiring minority coaches prompted legal action. He called the lawsuit “a signature event” that will have repercussions throughout the NFL if not all sports.
“This is an act of courage,” Mehri, who focuses on civil-rights and class-action cases, said. “Litigation is a last resort when there’s so much frustration. If one or two black coaches had been hired this season, this wouldn’t have been filed. The Rooney Rule is a successful process, but it requires good faith in implementing it.”
Flores was fired as the Dolphins head coach at the end of this season despite back-to-back winning campaigns in 2020 (10–6) and 2021 (9–8). He has been considered a top candidate for any of what were 10 vacant head coaching jobs just a few weeks ago. But the first four positions have all gone to white coaches, only one — Josh McDaniel (Raiders) — with previous head coaching experience.
Flores also alleges Dolphins owner Stephen Ross offered him $100,000 for every loss during the 2019 season to gain a higher draft position and that then-general manager John Elway showed up an hour late and looking hungover to interview Flores for Denver’s head coach opening in 2019.
The heart of the lawsuit focuses on Flores’ contention that the New York Giants interviewed him last month just for “show” after already deciding to hire Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. His allegation is based on an errant text message sent by New England head coach Bill Belichick, who thought he was congratulating Daboll, not Flores, who had yet to be interviewed. Flores said he endured “a sham interview” just so the Giants could comply with the Rooney Rule.
The Giants, Broncos, and Dolphins denied Flores’ allegation, and the NFL called the lawsuit “without merit.”
What’s really at issue is the NFL teams’ continued lack of minority head coaches. According to the lawsuit, in the 20 years since the Rooney Rule was adopted by the NFL, there have been approximately 129 head coaching vacancies. Only 15 have been filled by blacks. That equates to only 11 percent of the head coaching jobs going to black candidates in a league in which about 70 percent of the players are black.
Longtime NFL writer Jarrett Bell of USA Today told Zenger that ligation or the threat of it is traditionally the only action that prompts change in the NFL. Free agency occurred as a result of a lawsuit brought by NFL Hall of Famer Reggie White. Financial compensation for lingering symptoms from concussions and other medical assistance came from litigation. Even the Rooney Rule itself was adopted after Cochran warned, “If they don’t negotiate, we’re going to litigate.”
“Nothing gets the attention of NFL owners like courtroom drama,” Bell, who is black, said. “All groundbreaking shifts in thinking and structure it almost always goes back to the courtroom. We’ve been talking about this for a long time, and where has it gotten us? I think the courtroom offers the possibility of more action in some way or some shape.”
The NFL has been supportive of measures to increase opportunities for minorities, extending the Rooney Rule to the hiring of general managers, coordinators and other assistant coaching positions. The Fritz Pollard Alliance, which Mehri co-founded, prepares an extensive “Ready List” of minority coaching and front office candidates that is distributed to NFL teams in December. But Mehri says the NFL took the teeth out of the Rooney Rule in 2018 when it failed to penalize the Raiders for allegedly hiring Jon Gruden to be the head coach before speaking with minority candidates.
Raiders owner Mark Davis and Gruden reportedly struck a verbal agreement during a dinner meeting but didn’t “sign” a deal until after the organization had “interviews” with two minority candidates. The NFL investigated and issued a statement saying the Raiders “complied” with the Rooney Rule, which Mehri said sent a message to the league’s owners that the Rooney Rule was no longer being taken seriously. In the three coaching-vacancy cycles since then, of the 27 openings for an NFL head coach, only three black coaches — Steve Wilks (2018) Cardinals, Flores (2019) Dolphins and David Culley (2021) Texans — have been hired.
“It’s a mistake I think the league is paying for now,” Mehri said. “It sent a message to the owners that the league wasn’t going to enforce the Rooney Rule. One of his allegations in Flores’ lawsuit is the Giants already had a deal set before he went in to interview for the job of his dreams. If the NFL had given the hammer to the Raiders, the Giants wouldn’t have made an offer to Daboll before Brian came in.”
The Giants issued a statement offering no regrets. “We are pleased and confident with the process that resulted in the hiring of Brian Daboll,” the statement read. “We interviewed an impressive and diverse group of candidates. The fact of the matter is, Brian Flores was in the conversation to be our head coach until the eleventh hour. Ultimately, we hired the individual we felt was most qualified to be our next head coach.”
The Giants said Flores was interviewed twice and was contacted by co-owner John Mara before general manager Joe Schoen was hired.
As of Feb. 3, six NFL head coaching positions remain open. Flores was considered a strong candidate in Houston and New Orleans. Jacksonville, Minnesota, Miami and Chicago are also looking for a head coach.
Mehri has met with minority coaches annually for the last 20 years and heard the frustration over a lack of opportunity. “It’s pretty debilitating in terms of people’s morale and hopes,” Mehri said. “At some point, it just becomes too much for people to stand by and not take action.”
Bell, who has covered the NFL for 30 years, said the lawsuit will have “legs” and be a major topic of discussion at this month’s Super Bowl in Los Angeles “It will definitely be the hottest topic at [NFL Commissioner] Roger Goodell’s press conference,” Bell said. “Before this, the hot topics would have been about COVID-19 and how the Super Bowl is back and about the halftime show. Now this will be talked about by the Players Association, the players and the media.”
Edited by Richard Pretorius and Kristen Butler