Brian Flores' discrimination lawsuit is exposing the NFL's worst-kept secret — the Rooney Rule is failing Black coaches

·6 min read
Brian Flores looks on during a game against the New Orleans Saints.
Brian Flores looks on during a game against the New Orleans Saints.AP Photo/Butch Dill
  • Brian Flores' lawsuit against the NFL laid bare the failures of the Rooney Rule.

  • The Rooney Rule was meant to help minority coaches get in front of owners and land top jobs.

  • Insider spoke with David Gottlieb, one of Flores' attorneys, about the rule and the changes needed.

Brian Flores' blockbuster lawsuit against the NFL started with a mistaken text message.

Flores was fired as head coach Miami Dolphins earlier in the offseason and was set to interview with the New York Giants for their vacant head coaching position.

Three days before Flores' scheduled interview with the Giants, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, whose staff Flores previously worked on as a defensive coordinator, sent Flores a text congratulating him for landing the job. Belichick had heard from "Buffalo & NYG that you are their guy," screenshots of the text exchange showed.

"That's definitely what I want!" Flores replied. "I hope you're right coach. Thank you."

But hours later, Flores followed up with Belichick, asking if he thought he was talking to Brian Daboll, another candidate up for the Giants job who was the Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator at the time.

"Sorry — I fucked this up," Belichick responded to Flores, according to screenshots. "I double checked and misread the text. I think they are naming Brian Daboll. I'm sorry about that."

It appeared that the Giants had already made up their mind even though they had not completed Flores' interview yet.

"That for him was really the straw that broke the camel's back," David Gottlieb, one of the attorneys representing Flores, told Insider in a phone interview. "He realized he had evidence from text messages with Bill Belichick that he hasn't had and other coaches haven't had in the past that really showed that his interview with the New York Giants was a sham."

In a statement put out after Flores' lawsuit was filed, the Giants said they were "pleased and confident with the process that resulted in the hiring of Brian Daboll."

"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."

But to Flores, the texts he received from Belichick showed that the interview he was only scheduled to satisfy the NFL's Rooney Rule, which requires all teams to interview minority candidates for open coaching positions.

"He learned that the decision had been made," Gottlieb told Insider. "That he was not going to be getting the job and that he was just going in for an interview so that the Giants could check off the box to say that they were in compliance with the Rooney Rule."

Flores' lawsuit shines a light on an inconvenient truth that the NFL must reckon with: the Rooney Rule is not working

The Rooney Rule, named for former Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, was born of good intentions. The NFL wanted to diversify the NFL coaching ranks to look more like the athletes who make up most of its workforce.

The NFL established the rule in 2003 after two prominent Black head coaches — Tony Dungy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dennis Green of the Minnesota Vikings — were fired following the 2001 NFL season.

Dungy was coming off a winning season, leading the Buccaneers to their third straight postseason and fourth playoff appearance in five years. Green coached the Vikings for 10 seasons, reaching the playoffs eight times, including a 15-1 record in 1998. His final year with the Vikings was the first time his team posted a losing record.

When the Rooney Rule went into effect, just six Black men in the history of the NFL had ever held a head coaching job, and two had just been fired from their posts despite impressive results on the field.

Despite the good intentions, the Rooney Rule has not been effective.

According to the lawsuit, in 20 years under the Rooney Rule, there have been approximately 129 head coaching vacancies. Of those, just 15 (11%) were filled by Black candidates. The lawsuit also notes that none of the 10 Black head coaches hired since 2012 still hold a head coaching job today.

"The Rooney Rule has not worked, and I think that the NFL has recognized that by trying to strengthen it through amendments over the years," Gottlieb told Insider. "The amendments, which have been kind of nip-and-tucks to try to fix it, have not done the trick. Not even close. There's one head coach in the league right now that is Black, and there were three when the Rooney Rule went into effect."

Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers is the only active Black head coach in the NFL. In the most recent firing cycle, two Black head coaches — Flores and David Culley of the Houston Texans — were let go by their teams. None of the coaching vacancies filled this offseason have gone to Black candidates.

"For there to be true diversity, there needs to be an overhaul in the way these decisions are made, not just tweaking the Rooney Rule," Gottlieb told Insider.

The NFL must address the future of the Rooney Rule

While the Rooney Rule may have gotten more minority candidates interviews for head coaching jobs, the rule has not led to an uptick in representation for Black coaches.

And as Flores' text exchange with Belichick appears to show, sometimes Black candidates might not be getting a real shot at the jobs for which they've been nominated.

"To be in an interview where you don't feel like you're being given a fair chance, it's a humiliating experience," Gottlieb told Insider. "If teams are complying with [the Rooney Rule] as checking a box, rather than in a meaningful and bonafide way, then that's not acceptable.

"Whether it needs to be scrapped altogether or included in a modified form, as part of the solution here, I think is part of the discussion."

In the lawsuit, Flores offers several measures the league could take to better ensure that Black coaches are getting the opportunities they deserve. These include more Black individuals involved in the decision-making processes of NFL teams, increasing objectivity and transparency in hiring and firing decisions by having teams write out their reasoning for such decisions, and creating and funding a support system to help lower-level Black coaches advance towards a coordinator position.

But as Gottleib told Insider, if any effectual change is going to come, it will have to start with the league being ready to engage with the problem head on.

"The first thing is that there needs to be an openness to a dialogue," Gottlieb said. "If there's not openness to it, if there's not legitimate introspection and a legitimate open mind, then any measures that are taken will just be treated like a check box."

Read the original article on Insider