What Brian Flores’s Lawsuit Means
When you watch Brian Flores speak on television, he comes across staid and sober. When you read the text of his racial-discrimination lawsuit against the National Football League, you do not get the same impression.
Flores, the son of Honduran immigrants and a product of Brooklyn’s rough-and-tumble Brownsville neighborhood, was the head coach of the Miami Dolphins from 2019 through the end of the 2021 season. A black head coach in a league that has tried for decades to diversify its mostly white coaching ranks, Flores alleges his firing had “discriminatory undertones,” and claims he was subjected to two “sham” interviews—one by the New York Giants after his ouster from Miami, and the other by the Denver Broncos in 2019. He also accused Dolphins owner Stephen Ross of bribing him to lose games.
Flores’s legal team framed their client’s case as the latest chapter in the epochal struggle against white racism in America. Opening with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., the suit salutes the “brave leaders that fought so hard to help break down racial barriers” like “Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Jackie Robinson and Mamie Till.” It claims the NFL is “racially segregated” and is “managed much like a plantation.” The suit’s overwrought language distracts from the genuine mistreatment of Brian Flores, which has little to do with his race and more to do with league policies that distort the relationship between black coaching prospects and NFL ownership.
Football fans were shocked to see Flores get canned in Miami. Before he won the Dolphins head-coaching job in 2019, the team had suffered through a decade of mediocrity, limping variously to seven- and eight-win finishes peppered with the occasional ten-win campaign. After the 2018 season, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and general manager Chris Greer decided to blow up the nucleus of talent that produced a decade of competitive, if middling, Miami teams, loading up on salary-cap space and draft picks in hopes of building a long-term winner.
The predictable result was a roster almost completely devoid of NFL-caliber talent. Overnight, wide receivers Jarvis Landry and Kenny Stills were gone, leaving DeVante Parker and a collection of has-beens and never-weres on the offensive perimeter; the running back room was so devastated by trades and cuts that Patrick Laird, who finished the 2019 season averaging less than three yards per carry, started four games for the team in 2019; the defense that had made Miami competitive for a decade, with elite pass-rushers like Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon and blue-chip defensive backs like Reshad Jones, was populated with late-round rookies and plug-and-play journeymen. When Flores took over in 2019, the roster he inherited was among the worst in modern NFL history.
In spite of his inferior personnel, Flores managed to guide the team to victories in five of its last eight contests. After the 2019 season, Miami selected highly touted Alabama quarterback Tua Tagavailoa with the fifth-overall pick in the 2020 Draft. At his best, Tagovailoa is an accurate, quick-strike passer who plays the quarterback position like a point guard. At his worst, Tagovailoa is incapable of running a pro-style offense—he is uncomfortable taking snaps under center, forcing the team to truncate its playbook and shrink the universe of available calls; his small frame is a liability in short-yardage, impelling Miami to rely on husky backup Jacoby Brissett in yard-to-go situations; when defenses take away his first read, Tagovailoa looks as bad as any quarterback in the NFL. Flores never seemed sold, and if you watched the games, it was hard to blame him.
Even with Tagovailoa’s struggles at quarterback, Flores found a way to make the Dolphins competitive. Within two years of his inheriting the whittled husk of a once-stout defense, Flores built a formidable defense around two-time All-Pro Xavien Howard, a talented stable of pass-rushers, and an exotic scheme the success of which kept the young Tagovailoa and a spotty Miami offense in games. The defense carried an underwhelming Miami offense to a ten-win season in 2020 and a nine-win season in 2021, the latter of which came after losing seven of eight games at season’s start.
Whether due to the slow start in 2021 or a sense among Dolphins brass that the team was underperforming, Miami fired Flores after the 2021 season. Given the mess he inherited in 2019 and his having overseen back-to-back winning seasons, Flores’s was the most surprising firing to follow the close of the 2021 regular season. But it’s not clear Flores was fired because of his race, and no evidence was marshaled by his legal team to suggest that Miami—who just appointed the biracial Mike McDaniel as Flores’s successor—is a hotbed of anti-black sentiment.
The most regrettable part of the Flores affair is the way he was apparently treated as a token candidate to satisfy the NFL’s affirmative-action hiring policy. After being fired in Miami, the New York Giants reached out to Flores and asked to interview him for their head-coaching vacancy. Flores was days away from interviewing with the Giants when he got a text from Patriots head coach Bill Belichick congratulating him on the new job in New York. Surprised, Flores asked Belichick if he knew something that Flores didn’t about the Giants’s decision. Belichick had texted the wrong Brian—he meant to text former Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who had previously interviewed with Giants and was named New York’s head coach days later.
The Giants deny Flores’s characterization of the interview, but if Flores’s accusations are accurate then he was just brought in to satisfy the conditions of the Rooney Rule. The rule was instituted in 2003, and requires teams to interview at least two minority candidates for each head-coaching and executive-level vacancy. This arrangement—where teams, even if they’ve settled on a candidate, are required to conduct what amount to pro forma interviews with minority candidates—has the potential to lead to the “sham” interviews Flores claims to have been subjected to.
To some of its exponents, the reason that the Rooney Rule exists is to ensure that the racial composition of the NFL’s head coaches is commensurate with the racial composition of the league’s players. Flores’s lawyers, for example, denounce as unjust the fact that roughly 70 percent of NFL players are black, while, at the time of their filing, there was only one black head coach. (Since Flores filed the suit, two black head coaches have been hired—Mike McDaniel in Miami and Lovie Smith in Houston. Two head-coaching vacancies remaining in New Orleans and Minnesota.)
The suit reads: “In the 20 years since the Rooney Rule was passed, only 15 Head Coaching positions have been filled by Black Candidates. During that time, there have been approximately 129 Head Coaching vacancies. Thus only 11% of Head Coach positions have been filled by Black candidates—in a league where 70% of players are Black.”
This is the crux of Flores’s argument: Since the pool of players and pool of prospective coaches are effectively identical, any difference between the racial composition of the former and the latter groups is evidence of discrimination. But this is not so. Only four current NFL head coaches are former professional football players. The rest went into coaching either in college or immediately after, and have spent years as interns, position coaches, and coordinators. There are plenty of black coaches at every level of the game, but there are also plenty of white college players who couldn’t cut it at the pro level and instead devoted their lives to coaching. Football is big at high schools and colleges around the country, and college rosters are stocked to the brim with white players who can’t cut it at the pro level. It is reasonable to assume that the pool of prospective coaches is therefore closer to the racial composition of the general American population than the disproportionately black pool of NFL players.
The Rooney Rule is an exception to the meritocratic ethic that dominates other levels of football. There has not been a white starting cornerback in the NFL since 2003. There was only one starting white running back in the NFL last year. In colleges around the country, thousands of white high-school cornerbacks are moved to safety, thousands of white high-school running backs are moved to fullback, and thousands of white high-school receivers are moved to tight end. No one has yet proposed a “Sehorn Rule” to ensure that those positions are more representative of the racial composition of the population at large. The NFL should insist that its coaches, like its players, be hired solely on the basis of merit—without regard to skin color.