Jack Roshco is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this column are well supported by facts and rigorous analysis; this column is opinion journalism and was not produced by any of The Michigan Daily’s fact finding sections, such as the Sports or News sections.
Former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores announced Feb. 1 that he had filed a class-action lawsuit against the NFL and three of its teams. He alleged racial discrimination in league hiring practices as well as tanking — a practice by which teams intentionally lose to amass greater draft capital, among other charges. Flores’s lawsuit calls into question the legitimacy of the “Rooney Rule,” which requires all NFL teams to interview at least two external minority candidates for coaching and general manager vacancies.
Flores, however, is essentially calling the rule a sham. He claims that multiple teams engaged him in sham interviews meant only to satisfy the Rooney Rule, and he was not a serious candidate for those jobs. He brought receipts; the lawsuit contained screenshots of a text exchange between Flores and Patriots coach Bill Belichick, whom Flores worked for in New England before taking the Dolphins’ job. Belichick evidently believed he was texting Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll (his longtime former tight ends coach in New England) to congratulate him on being hired as coach of the New York Giants. But the text went to Flores, who was set to interview for the Giants’ job himself three days later. Flores did have his interview as scheduled, and shortly thereafter the Giants introduced their new coach: Brian Daboll.
Flores’s claims come with instant credibility, both because of the state of racial representation in the league and because of Flores’s stature as a coach. There are only three active black coaches in the NFL — Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin; the Dolphins’ new coach, Mike McDaniel; and Lovie Smith with the Houston Texans — after Flores and Texans coach David Culley were fired after this season. That alone is a pretty bad look for the league, but context makes it worse. The Texans have a longstanding reputation of institutional racism and those allegations have been repeatedly substantiated.
Late Texans owner Bob McNair even faced severe backlash from his own players for racist comments he made in 2017. Racism seems to be hereditary in the McNair family. Bob McNair’s son Cal, current owner of the team, is no stranger to racially charged controversy himself, and recent rumors have been swirling that Houston was dead-set on hiring former NFL quarterback Josh McCown as coach. They didn’t, but the fact that they were considering a white man in his early 40s with no coaching experience with people like Flores out there is indicative of the larger problem, even if McCown wasn’t ultimately hired.
Flores’s lawyers, justifiably, accused McNair of only hiring Smith to thwart allegations of institutional racism in light of the class-action suit. ESPN’s NFL Insider Adam Schefter chimed in as well, saying “I think (Flores’s lawsuit) changed this (NFL coach-hiring) cycle,” on the network’s Super Bowl LVI “SportsCenter” special on Feb 9. “I think the Texans were tracking — tracking — to hire Josh McCown, and the environment and atmosphere changed once that lawsuit was filed. And I think it would’ve been very difficult for them to hire a guy they, I think, were very interested in, and they ended up hiring Lovie Smith instead.” Given the way the McNair family has spoken — publicly — about minorities, it’s hard to disagree with Flores’s lawyers here. From the outside, it looks like they’re racists using Culley and now Smith as pawns to try to throw fans off the scent.
Tomlin is the league’s longest-tenured coach, and he coaches the franchise owned by the Rooney family, the namesake of the Rooney Rule. None of that is to say Tomlin’s continued presence in Pittsburgh is due to his race. He has long been an elite NFL coach, and the Steelers would be universally ridiculed for firing him. Having said that, Flores had begun to establish himself as an elite coach as well, and his firing by the Dolphins this offseason came as a massive shock both within the league and in the media. He was known as one of the league’s most popular coaches within his own locker room, and is often spoken of as the epitome of a “player’s coach.” Flores led the Dolphins to their first back-to-back winning seasons since 2002 and 2003, and had restored hope to one of the league’s most success-starved franchises.
Flores’s status as a rising star — one who was already producing winning seasons after taking over a franchise mired in two decades of complete and utter irrelevance — is significant. If Flores was a first-time coach who was fired with a record 7-10 games under .500, you could argue that he was just a sore loser seeking to capitalize on America’s racial tensions. But Flores led one of the league’s most perennially embarrassing franchises to a 24-25 record in three seasons, including 19-13 the last two seasons. Whether Flores’s firing and/or his interview experiences were racially influenced remains to be seen, but firing him was so objectively stupid that you almost have to wonder whether the decision may not have been entirely football-related. With the league’s record on race, from blackballing Colin Kaepernick to the conspicuous snubbing of qualified black candidates, all of this is enough to raise an eyebrow or two.
That last point isn’t some kind of abstract conjecture. There are multiple well-known African-American coordinators who should be coaches right now, and their lack of opportunities is glaring. Schefter noted later in the “SportsCenter” special that the Pittsburgh Steelers’ new defensive coordinator has interviewed for 10 coaching jobs, and hasn’t gotten one of them. Teryl Austin is a respected and experienced coach who is clearly worthy of a chance to lead an organization. Is it that much of a reach to say anybody who’s been asked to interview 10 times for a coaching job is probably qualified for one? Eric Bieniemy, the offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs, has overseen one of the most prolific offenses of all time, with two Super Bowl appearances and one championship to his name. He has interviewed for multiple vacancies over multiple years. He’s still a coordinator. Bieniemy and Flores were passed over for the New Orleans Saints job, too. New Orleans chose to promote from within earlier this month, going with their defensive coordinator, Dennis Allen.
That seems sensible on its face — to maintain stability in an organization which just lost its legendary longtime coach in Sean Payton. After all, Allen had been with the organization since 2015; has coaching experience, like Flores but unlike Bieniemy; and was seen as Payton’s right-hand man in recent years. That sounds great on paper, but Allen was 8-28 with zero playoff appearances in three years as coach of the Raiders. He gets another chance in the big chair before Flores, who’s had more recent (and far more successful) coaching experience? He gets the nod over Bieniemy, the architect of Patrick Mahomes’s development into an all-time great quarterback? Bieniemy and Flores were passed over for a job that they were both more qualified for than the coach who got it.
Kliff Kingsbury, though? He’s still the coach of the Arizona Cardinals, despite having no business even interviewing for that job in the first place. If there were such a thing as irrefutable anecdotal evidence for Flores’s case, the dichotomy between Kingsbury and these up-and-coming Black coaches would be it. When he was hired by the Cardinals, Kingsbury had only one career coaching job: at Texas Tech University. One would think that a first-time NFL coach — under age 40 and hired straight out of the college game — would have a résumé of sustained dominance at the college level. At this point, you probably know where I’m going with this: Kingsbury was 35-40 at Texas Tech, but … he coached Patrick Mahomes there, and Johnny Manziel and Case Keenum before Mahomes, as an assistant coach. So the Cardinals took a flier on him. Success developing quarterbacks is one thing; winning football games as a coach is another. 35-40 in college, and 24-25-1 in the NFL, and safely entering his fourth season in Arizona; yet Bieniemy sits tight in Kansas City, while Flores will probably never see an NFL sideline again.
Whether you agree with Flores’s case or not, it’s undeniable: The NFL has a race problem pervading its coaching hiring practices that it has gotten away with for decades. Ultimately, winning the battle of public opinion may have just as big of an impact as winning the case in court. Flores would be wise not to let anyone forget that there are some seriously mediocre white guys coaching with completely unwarranted job security (we’re all looking at you, Mike McCarthy and Matt Rhule), while bona fide studs like Flores, Austin, Bieniemy and so many more are shut out entirely.
Jack Roshco is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.