It’s not just the NFL. Executives and entrepreneurs of color say they see themselves in Brian Flores, the former Miami Dolphins head coach who says he was interviewed for the same job with the New York Giants only to satisfy a diversity requirement.
“My first reaction was, ‘Wow, this has been happening to me,’ ” said Herby Duverné, who is Black and chief executive of Windwalker Group, a Boston firm that provides cybersecurity and physical security.
Looking back over his decades-long career, Kenn Turner, who is Black and chief executive of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, had the same thought.
“I don’t think that delving into the specifics of an organization or a company would be all that helpful. But yes, of course, it’s happened to me,” said Turner.
Both Turner and Duverny say their experiences are hardly unique among peers of color. It’s that sense of being brought in for interviews so companies can “check-the-box” on diversity, but in reality they’ve already made up their minds on who to hire.
“I don’t think that there’s a person of color who has risen through the ranks, who at some point hasn’t experienced what Brian Flores is alleging the NFL did,” added Turner. “It’s unfortunate that we still are experiencing that.”
What is different is that Flores seems to have proof the fix was in when he interviewed for the head coach opening for the Giants. Three days before his scheduled meeting on Jan. 27, Flores, who is Black, got a text from Patriots coach Bill Belichick congratulating him on his appointment. Belichick meant to message Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who is white and ultimately got the nod as the Giants’ new coach.
The texts are at the center of a 58-page racial discrimination lawsuit Flores filed last week against the NFL, the Miami Dolphins, Denver Broncos, and the Giants. Flores had been Miami’s head coach until he was fired on Jan. 10. The NFL and teams have denied the allegations, though now the league is saying it will investigate the claims.
It goes without saying the National Football League has a diversity problem when about 70 percent of its players are Black, yet out of 32 teams, only five head coaching jobs are held by people of color. The league had a shot at improving its abysmal record with nine head coach vacancies this off season. Still, only two slots went to coaches of color — one Black and one multiracial — both hired after Flores filed his lawsuit.
In particular, Flores is crying foul over how the NFL has deployed its much-hyped Rooney Rule, which was adopted in 2003, initially to require teams to interview at least one candidate of color for any head coach opening. The rule was later amended to two required candidates of color get a shot.
In his lawsuit, Flores alleges that teams, including the Giants and Denver Broncos, conduct “sham” interviews to comply with the Rooney Rule. Flores claims that when he interviewed with the Broncos in 2019, then-Broncos general manager John Elway and others showed up an hour late and looked “completely disheveled” as if they had been drinking heavily the night before.
“It was clear from the substance of the interview that Mr. Flores was interviewed only because of the Rooney Rule,” according to the lawsuit.
Versions of the Rooney Rule have been adopted off the field by companies and organizations to increase diversity. Academics have also studied the rule’s implementation and implications for diversity, equity, and inclusion workplace policies.
”We see this a lot in not just the NFL, but in Corporate America as well as academia, where an initial tool is created, it creates some movement, and we don’t do anything to go beyond that tool, and the biases that were there in the beginning, they didn’t go away,” said David Thomas, a former professor at Harvard Business School who has studied the Rooney Rule and now serves as president of Morehouse College in Atlanta.
Flores’s experiences have struck a chord in particular with entrepreneurs of color who compete for contracts from companies, universities, and governments that often have diversity requirements attached to their processes.
That feeling of not being taking seriously happens so often that these business owners say they recognize the telltale signs. The most obvious tell: being asked right before the deadline to submit a proposal and not being given enough information about the project.
“Just put something together” is what Duverné of Windwalker Group hears from organizations that realize they are lacking a diverse bidder, but probably have no intention of hiring his company.
Even so, Duverné, said, he will many times submit a proposal in the hopes that it will be so impressive his firm will get selected. He figures he can’t complain about not getting contracts, if he doesn’t go after them.
“It’s hard to tell them my story if I never go to the game,” said Duverné.
Diversity requirements in hiring can be effective, but they fall short when the focus is merely on requiring the candidate pool to be diverse. Organizations need to follow through and create accountability through polices and metrics, said Nicole Obi, chief executive of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts.
“I’ve been in many situations where the senior leadership of an organization is bought in or even passionate about being more inclusive, but their intentions and interests didn’t ‘trickle down’ throughout the organization to middle managers who enjoy a certain degree of autonomy in decision making,” said Obi. “Good intentions are not enough.”
Diversity consultant Su Joun sees frustrations on both sides. White chief executives don’t understand why diversity requirements don’t work, while professionals of color are constantly told they aren’t ready for the bigger jobs and first should go through another development program.
Perhaps Flores’s biggest impact will be that he’s forcing honest conversations about how and why the current diversity policies ― in many realms ― are not working.
“For a long time, we have all heard the many whispers ... ‘they just interviewed me for the 10th time, only to find out they already had somebody in mind all along,’ ” said Joun. “But no one’s going to say that out loud because they know it’s a small world, and they’ll never get considered for another high-level role.”
The jury is out whether Flores will work again in the NFL. By taking on the most exclusive of clubs, Flores is risking everything it took him to get to the highest level of professional sports. Just ask Colin Kaepernick.
But his lawsuit is bigger than football. It’s about calling out sham processes everywhere that have been conducted in the name of diversity. In that way, Flores has already won.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.