Sports

The NFL Can’t Deny Its Race Problem Anymore

Flores with a Miami Dolphins hat and headset on, on the sidelines.
Brian Flores coaches the Miami Dolphins against the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 19 in Miami Gardens, Florida. Michael Reaves/Getty Images

A couple of weeks back, Bill Belichick, the general manager of the New England Patriots, sent a text that—by now—he probably regrets.

He was reaching out to a guy named Brian. Only, there are apparently two Brians saved in his phone. A white Brian and a Black Brian. “He was congratulating the white Brian on getting the New York Giants head coaching job. The problem is that he texted Brian Flores, the Black Brian,” explains LZ Granderson.

The Black Brian—Brian Flores—was also up for this coaching job with the Giants.

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“Black Brian had yet to interview for that job, but he was slotted to interview for that job three days from which he got that text message,” says Granderson, who has been following the saga of these texts. He says, eventually, Brian Flores texted Belichick back to ask: Are you sure you’re messaging the right guy? Belichick’s response: Sorry, I f’d this up.

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For Granderson, this comedy of errors reveals a darker truth about the NFL—that a league that relies on Black players to mercilessly break their bodies, week after week, refuses to let Black people lead. “Why is the New York Giants interviewing Brian Flores three days later, when they already know that they plan on hiring this white guy?”

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The only reason we know about these texts is because last week Brian Flores filed a lawsuit. In it, he alleges that his experience getting locked out of this coaching position is an example of a bigger problem for the league—the definition of “structural racism.”

On Monday’s episode of the show, I spoke with Granderson about how one football coach is taking aim at his entire league. Will he change football for good, or simply lock himself out of the game? Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mary Harris: The reason Brian Flores was interviewing for a job in the first place is because back in January he was fired. He used to be the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. His lawsuit looks to explain both why he was let go and why he’s had trouble landing somewhere else. And it’s a barnburner.

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It kicks off by comparing the way the NFL does business to a plantation: “The owners watch the games from atop NFL stadiums in their luxury boxes, while their majority-Black workforce put their bodies on the line.” What Flores is actually suing over is what he says is a pattern of discrimination by the NFL over who gets hired into senior positions. And the suit is a class action, meaning Flores thinks more people will join his cause. 

Can you introduce me to Brian Flores for people who may not know him? Like, how did he become an NFL coach?

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LZ Granderson: The hard way. He spent 20 years coming up the ranks through coordinator and assistant.

He went to Miami after having been with the New England Patriots for years. Is that right? 

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He was an assistant coach with Bill Belichick, which is how the text message came to be. But he spent 20 years coming up the ranks. He’s not parachuting in like, for instance, Josh McCown would be. Josh McCown was a longtime journeyman quarterback in the NFL. As far as I know, his only coaching experience is at a high school level. And yet he’s reportedly on his second interview of being the new head coach for the Houston Texans. That is an example of someone parachuting in without coming up through the ranks. Brian Flores is someone who spent nearly two decades preparing for this moment.

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Was it always kind of a mystery why he was let go from the Dolphins?

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The industry felt that way. We were all like, “This doesn’t make any sense.” Why would you fire someone who finished the season so strong? Why would you fire someone who’s quarterback was in and out of the lineup, but he still found a way to win? And there had been some rumors that he and management did not get along, but we weren’t necessarily clear at that particular time as to what that meant.

Now, as you look at the lawsuit, it appears as if management wanted him to lose, and he refused to lose, because guess what? Say he does lose and gets the money, and then he gets fired for losing and having a bad record, look how hard it would be for him to get rehired if he has a losing record at his only attempt at being a head coach.

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In this lawsuit, Flores alleges a couple of things—basically that the real reason he was “difficult to work for,” which was the rumor that was put out there, was that he wanted to play by the rules, but his bosses didn’t. They wanted him to have meetings with quarterbacks that he wasn’t supposed to have by the NFL rules. They even offered him $100,000 a game to throw the game, which he didn’t want to do.

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And what you’re pointing out here is really important, which is that as a Black coach, he was in an impossible position. There are so few Black coaches. I can only imagine that he feels like he cannot be doing the wrong things. It would be so easy for him to be out, so he needs to do the right things. He also needs to get along with his bosses. And so it just puts him in this position of having no good choice.

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Right? I really feel for him because not only is he being ostracized to a certain degree for being Afro-Latino, and I think that’s an important distinction to make as well. He’s a Black man, but he also is an Afro-Latino, and there’s only one Latino coach in the NFL right now. The idea that this upstanding man who worked his way up through the ranks and finally landed this dream job in Miami gets there and they want him to lose on purpose; they want him to try to recruit players, which would have broken the rules; they want him to do everything wrong when he did everything right to get there.

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When it comes to coaches like Brian Flores, our listeners have probably heard of the Rooney Rule—the rule the NFL put in place 20 years ago, ostensibly to make sure it was hiring Black head coaches. Part of why this lawsuit is interesting is because it really lays out how the Rooney Rule came to be in the first place. And I wonder if you can tell that story.

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Sure. The first Black head coach hired in the modern NFL was Art Shell in 1989. So, almost 40 years of NFL seasons and no Black head coach. Art Shell gets hired, and we start thinking, Oh, maybe this opened up the doors for others. It did not. And so the Rooney Rule was put in place because one of the things that was discovered was that Black people weren’t even being brought in for interviews. And the Rooney Rule said you must bring in at least two minorities to be interviewed for these jobs. When the Rooney Rule was put in place, there were two Black head coaches in the NFL at that point. Today, there’s one—to let you know just how effective that Rooney Rule has been.

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Part of what’s so shocking about Flores’ allegations is that he says he went to not just one but two fake interviews for coaching jobs. One, he knew because he’d gotten this text from Bill Belichick. And the other one he showed up and he realized the guys he’s interviewing with had clearly been out drinking the night before and just weren’t taking it seriously. It’s like every job interviewer’s nightmare.

Not only did they not take it seriously during the interview, they were more than an hour late. Think about what that means. Brian Flores is suggesting that he was brought in for an interview for a head coaching job and that the people who are looking to do the hire not only showed up, according to the lawsuit, disheveled and looking as if they were hungover, but they showed up over an hour late. This is the NFL, where we know there are tons of coaches who punish players with fines for being late. John Elway, one of the people mentioned in the lawsuit, is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. He knows how important time in the NFL is as a player. So the idea that one of the greatest quarterbacks in the league’s history was so flippant with time lets you know just how little they thought of him in this process in the interview.

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One of the more damaging allegations in this lawsuit when I read it was that it’s not just that Black coaches are less likely to be hired but that once they’re hired, they’re more likely to be fired even if they have a winning season.

I’m from Detroit. Our last winning seasons were with Jim Caldwell, who was a Black head coach. He had secured back-to-back winning seasons and was fired, and they haven’t had a winning season since.

Brian Flores had back-to-back winning seasons, including finishing eight and one down the stretch, which has never happened before in NFL history. And he led the Miami Dolphins to its first back-to-back winning seasons in more than 20 years. And he was fired.

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In L.A., coach Anthony Lynn, who didn’t do a terrible job by any stretch, was let go after the starting quarterback was injured before the season even began. It’s not only that a Black coach can be fired with a winning season, but a Black coach can be fired for some of the most ridiculous reasons that are completely out of their control and not get another opportunity to come back as a head coach.

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Whereas Adam Gase, who was the head coach in Miami, back-to-back losing seasons, immediately gets rehired with the Jets and has two more losing seasons. The four head coaches right now that have just been hired are all white men, and if you add up all of their records together, they don’t have as many winning seasons as Brian Flores does. They have jobs. Does that make sense to you?

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Can you lay out what the teams have said in response to this lawsuit?

I can do it in one sweeping stroke sentence: Brian Flores’ accusations aren’t true, and they look forward to disproving them. The three individual teams have said that the accusations aren’t true. But more importantly, the NFL said they’re without merit. And the NFL said that very quickly.

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Why did that stand out to you?

One, they didn’t acknowledge there was a possibility. You have the Rooney Rule because you acknowledge that Black coaches haven’t been getting a fair shake in head coaching opportunities. So you’ve already said that these accusations have some merit because you have the Rooney Rule still in place.

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Two, you just went through the Colin Kaepernick conversation, who sued you, by the way, and he settled out of court. You just did that in front of the world.

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Three, you just got sued for racist practices in terms of compensation for retired players using race norming as your barometer—a metric that’s used that starts off with the premise that Black players aren’t as intellectually sharp as white players to begin with.

And now you’re going to tell us without even so much as acknowledging this is something that you want to investigate that it’s without merit. We’ve seen it ourselves. We don’t need you to gaslight us.

I wonder what you think about the solutions offered up in this lawsuit because in addition to seeking monetary damages, Brian Flores is asking for these structural solutions that I thought were really interesting. He talks about funding a committee dedicated to sourcing Black investors who would have ownership stakes in teams, or incentivizing Black general managers and head coaches by, for instance, having draft incentives for that, which I thought was pretty innovative and interesting. What did you think?

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So how many Black women have been on the Supreme Court?

That would be a zero. 

And what was the country’s response when Biden reemphasize that he plans on nominating a Black woman to the Supreme Court?

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The reason I brought that up is because in this country, we have tried a variety of things to help close the racial disparity gap. We’ve passed laws, we’ve done marches, we’ve had conversations. We’ve done, innovative, creative ways to get more people of color in positions of power or authority, or at least being positioned to be considered for those positions.

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We tried the Rooney Rule.

We’ve tried our Rooney Rule. We’ve done Reconstruction. We’ve offered up 40 acres and a mule that never transpired. We’ve tried a lot of things. And what is abundantly clear is that you can legislate behavior, but you can’t legislate a person’s heart and you can’t legislate a person’s mind. And so while I do believe that Brian has suggested a lot of creative ways to rectify this, the reality is that unless the owners themselves have a change of heart and mind, they’ll just continue to look for ways to usurp those creative methods that Brian Flores presented, just the way that they usurped the Rooney Rule in the first place.

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So you’re saying, even if the NFL’s said, “OK, we’ll do all these things,” you’re not going to believe it till you see it?

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Who would? It says “end racism” in the end zone as they’re paying Black players less money than white players based upon the color of their skin on the back end for brain injuries and for health reasons for retired players. They’re saying “end racism” when they know good and damn well Colin Kaepernick is not in the league because he wanted to end racism and the league said, “Get the hell out of here.”

An interesting question is who begins speaking out now. You’ve written that you think it’s really important that the players start coming forward and supporting Flores in his lawsuit—and coaches, too. What would that look like?

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There are a variety of things that could be done with the muscle of players and coaches, with the option of work stoppages as a threat. You tell owners this gravy train that we’re on is going to get derailed, and they’re going to want to know how to fix it. But until the gravy train has a threat of being derailed, they’re just going to keep on running the way things are going because things, monetarily at least, have been going extremely well.

And look, I’m an NFL fan. I’m a Rams fan. I’m happy as fuck right now. We might win the Super Bowl, but that doesn’t mean that I’m happy with the state of the NFL.

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