Are National Football League team owners systematically shutting out Black candidates from head coaching jobs? A former Miami Dolphins head coach says yes.
In a lawsuit filed in federal court this month, Brian Flores accuses the NFL of discriminatory hiring and retention practices that deny Black candidates an equal opportunity despite the League’s “Rooney Rule,” which requires teams to interview at least one Black candidate for coaching or front-office vacancies. (Next season, only three of the league’s 32 teams will have a Black head coach.)
Flores also says that Black coaches are paid less and fired more quickly than white coaches, even when their job performance is better. Flores was let go in January despite having prior back-to-back winning seasons, and he has been rejected for jobs with other teams. Black coaches have long complained that they get called for interviews just to comply with the rule but don’t get hired.
In a statement, the NFL said the suit was “without merit.”
The Gazette spoke to Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Ford Foundation Professor of History, Race and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project, a research initiative that studies the efficacy of policies to make workplaces more diverse, equitable, and inclusive, about the lawsuit and why so many companies have not made greater strides around diversity. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad
GAZETTE: What’s the potential importance of this lawsuit?
MUHAMMAD: I think that it is both important in the substance of the charges, and it’s important that it’s being publicly disclosed. Sometimes people have to dig into court proceedings and court filings to know that a lawsuit has occurred in the first place. In this instance, it’s clear that Flores and his legal team see this as an opportunity to structurally change the way the NFL operates.
Some of the other claims regard game fixing — there’s a way to see the line between what some researchers call “glass cliffs,” where Black people and/or women or other minorities are brought into firms when things aren’t good, and they’re set up to fail. It’s sort of a “diversity moment” and then you move on — that’s even more disturbing in some ways, for all sorts of reasons. But particularly on the question of diversity because it suggests that we have no idea how deep this problem is and how long. There haven’t been a lot of Black football coaches, but the extent that they have faced these kinds of challenges is significant.
GAZETTE: Flores has said that he’s looking for systemic changes. If he ends up settling with the league, would that undermine its value as a tool for change?
MUHAMMAD: Yes, but settlements in and of themselves often do lead to change because the legal liability that comes with the precedent of settlement of this kind can often change behavior, as well. It’s not like Colin Kaepernick, who’s alleging collusion within the league to keep him from playing. That’s not something to solve for. But in the case of Brian Flores, if they settle, people will conclude that the NFL is admitting guilt even though it is not, and it will establish a precedent so that it may face future lawsuits on just the simple prima facie evidence that teams have not given due diligence to the Rooney Rule.
GAZETTE: In some ways, is the public nature of the conduct alleged and NFL’s history with race helpful in demonstrating what systemic racism is, as Flores has claimed, and how it works for those who have not experienced it or doubted whether it truly existed?
MUHAMMAD: It’s a really good question. I think two things: First, the NFL is a unique actor as a small monopoly of owners who can essentially agree to set certain rules that fall within their rights as corporations. And so, they do have monopoly power, to some degree, over how they govern themselves in ways that aren’t true with competitive firms as standalone firms. In that sense, the weight of this lawsuit means that you’ve got 32 firms acting in bad faith by implication. Not by evidence, but by implication. Second is how thoroughly documented the absence of Black leadership, managerial leadership, and coaching leadership is in an industry with 70 percent Black players. So yes, the numbers do speak for themselves, and the history of the league speaks for itself.
Here’s the thing: Even with that history, with those numbers, we still live in a society where you can line up all the evidence and still people walk away and say, “It’s a meritocracy. Brian Dabell [who was recently hired by the New York Giants over Flores] is the better coach. They had every right to pick who they want. It’s a free country. They’re private employers.” And we move on. As someone who teaches the history of structural racism, I’m very well aware of how evidence is not often sufficient to change behavior. That’s true in a lot of diversity research on organizations.