Coaches blow whistles to correct the actions and practices of their players. Brian Flores is bravely trying to correct the wayward actions of an entire industry.
Flores, a former Patriots assistant coach who was fired as Miami Dolphins head coach last month, blew the whistle on the NFL’s illegal procedure when it comes to discriminatory hiring practices.
There is an oft-used expression about people saying the quiet part out loud, revealing their racist thinking. With his lawsuit against the NFL and three of its teams, Flores flipped the script on that epigram.
As an alleged victim of discriminatory hiring practices, he is using a megaphone to blast the quiet part out loud in a lawsuit. He’s making public the indignities and inequities that Black NFL coaches, scouts, and front office personnel have discussed and lamented for years as a cruel reality of trying to climb the league’s ladder. Flores took what was an open industry secret and brought it into the legal light of day.
Understand this: Black coaches and scouts are not asking to be handed NFL jobs on the basis of race. All they are asking for is a level playing field and to not be made to feel like Rooney Rule protocol pawns in the hiring process.
As one Black NFL talent evaluator who asked not to be identified said to me: “I don’t want any favors.”
There is a feeling among Black football professionals that because there are few Black folks that are part of the brain trust for owners that they are left out of the real process.
That’s at the heart of Flores’s lawsuit. The 40-year-old Flores is as qualified a candidate as there is on the head coaching scene this offseason, coming off the Dolphins’ first consecutive winning seasons since 2002 and 2003.
A Brooklyn, N.Y., native, he was excited to interview for the head coaching job of his hometown Giants until Patriots coach Bill Belichick accidentally and inadvertently tipped him off in an embarrassing text exchange that the Giants had already decided to hire another ex-Patriots assistant, Brian Daboll.
That rendered Flores’s interview with the Giants a bureaucratic box-checking sham.
Under recent enhancements made to the Rooney Rule, first instituted in 2003 to promote diversity by requiring teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching jobs, NFL teams must interview two external minority candidates. One of those interviews must be in person.
The Giants had already virtually interviewed Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. It was interviewing Flores that satisfied the Rooney Rule.
The Giants did later interview Frazier in person as well, but Frazier worked in Buffalo with new Giants general manager Joe Schoen. So, it’s hard to discern if Schoen was still weighing Frazier’s candidacy or just doing him a courtesy as a former colleague.
Notably, one Giants player who knows Flores stands with him.
In a tweet, former Patriot Nate Solder wrote: “B Flo has always been a man of conviction and character. I am proud of him for risking so much and standing for truth and justice at great risk and cost to himself and his family. I got your back coach.”
Flores isn’t the first Black coach or GM candidate to feel like he was subjected to a sham interview. He won’t be the last. It wasn’t even the first time this happened to Flores, according to his lawsuit, which also states that in 2019 members of the Denver Broncos, including John Elway, showed up late and allegedly hungover for an in-person interview.
The problem for the NFL is that the spirit of the Rooney Rule isn’t being honored. Instead, it’s mostly being treated as a hurdle to clear in the process of hiring the non-minority coach of a franchise’s dreams. It has become performative instead of ameliorative.
Black NFL personnel know this. But it’s a Catch-22. If they turn down some of these no-shot interviews then people can say they weren’t really interested. If they take them, they know they are just perpetuating a broken system.
This is what the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an organization that advocates and works with the NFL to improve diversity, pointed out in a statement.
“Brian Flores’s lawsuit is just the latest, dramatic call to action for the NFL and its team owners,” said executive director Rod Graves, who served as GM of the Arizona Cardinals and built Arizona’s 2008 Super Bowl team.
“Men and women of color in the NFL community have long known that the odds of advancing in the coaching ranks and in the front office are stacked against them…”
As the Flores lawsuit points out, even when Black coaches get hired they’re not given the same runway. The lawsuit states that Black coaches are afforded 2½ years on the job to 3½ for white coaches.
In the past three years, two Black coaches have been fired after a single season — Steve Wilks (Arizona) and David Culley (Houston).
Wilks is a cautionary tale. He lost games in 2018 and got the No. 1 pick, which is what Flores alleges Dolphins owner Stephen Ross instructed him to do in 2019, claiming Ross incentivized tanking by promising him $100,000 per loss.
Wilks never got to benefit from that pick, Kyler Murray. The Cardinals canned him and hired Kliff Kingsbury, who sported a losing record as a college head coach.
Those losses live indelibly on the record of a Black coach and will be used as confirmation bias for his inadequacy. That’s the head coaching Hobson’s choice Flores ostensibly faced — win and anger his owner or lose and add fuel to the unqualified argument.
With the Minnesota Vikings prepared to tap former Patriots backup quarterback Kevin O’Connell as their new head coach, more than half of the nine head coaching vacancies in the NFL will be spoken for without a single minority hire.
The problem for the NFL is that Flores is one of the 32 best pro football head coaches on the planet. There’s no way around that, despite the asinine statement from the Giants defending their search.
The Giants statement slapped Flores in the face, saying, “Ultimately, we hired the individual we felt was most qualified to be our head coach.”
If the Giants wanted an offensive coach to salvage quarterback Daniel Jones you can make that case. But they should spell that out emphatically. There is no world in which Daboll, who has zero head coaching experience, is objectively more qualified than Flores, who has three seasons of experience and two straight winning seasons.
This is an insult to our intelligence from a franchise that tapped Joe Judge, one of the most disastrous hires of the last 20 years, the last time it determined the “most qualified.”
Therein lies one of the chief problems for anyone advocating for NFL equality: the only qualifications to be an NFL owner are a big bank account and fortuitous DNA.
Merit doesn’t matter. The NFL ownership club is a plutocracy, and business acumen doesn’t automatically translate to professional football expertise. Ross is looking for his seventh head coach since 2009. You tell me who isn’t qualified.
There are only two ways to get the attention of NFL owners — mess with their money and bruise their fragile egos with public embarrassment. Flores’s lawsuit threatens to do both while campaigning for true justice.
Coach Flo has blown the whistle on the NFL’s diversity dirty, little not-so-secret. It’s a secret no more.
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.