The Houston Texans announced this week that Lovie Smith would be their new head coach. Fifteen years ago, he became the first Black head coach (by a matter of hours) to win a berth in the Super Bowl. Now he’ll be the first Black man to lead three different NFL franchises on the sidelines.
It’s good to see Smith, the team’s defensive coordinator last season, get another shot to lead an NFL team after coaching the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Texans’ hire of Smith, however, cannot make up for the damning allegations in a recent lawsuit filed against the NFL and three of its teams: Black head coaches in the NFL are neither hired at representative rates nor kept around for very long.
In the 58-page lawsuit filed this month, former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, who is Black, alleged that “the NFL remains rife with racism, particularly when it comes to the hiring and retention of Black Head Coaches, Coordinators and General Managers.” Flores — who was fired by the Dolphins in January, despite a record-winning three seasons — also claims that he was subjected to what he called “sham” interviews for head coach positions by both the New York Giants this offseason and the Denver Broncos in 2019. Flores says the interviews were only meant to satisfy the league’s quota for interviewing candidates of color before the teams ultimately hired white men.
His former team stands accused of multiple offenses throughout the suit, including this breathtaking allegation: During Flores’s first season as coach, “Miami’s owner, Stephen Ross, told Mr. Flores that he would pay him $100,000 for every loss, and the team’s General Manager, Chris Grier, told Mr. Flores that ‘Steve’ was ‘mad’ that Mr. Flores’ success in winning games that year was ‘compromising [the team’s] draft position.’
If an NFL inquiry finds the allegation credible, Ross and Grier will be shown to have been awfully cavalier with the career of a young Black coach in a league that already has trouble hiring them. Imagine Flores, in his 30s and in his first year with the Dolphins, put in such a position by his wealthy, white employer. It would be unconscionable.
Both the Giants and former Broncos general manager John Elway have denied that Flores received anything but a fair shot at the job, and the NFL responded that Flores’s lawsuit was “without merit.” In a statement, Ross wrote that the allegations against him were “false, malicious and defamatory.”
Flores’s lawsuit, which was timed to coincide with Black History Month, has, however, once again gotten the most powerful American sports league enmeshed in the National Conversation About Race.
The moment echoes not only the coaching controversies of the past but also the culture war over Colin Kaepernick and the sideline protests he began as an NFL quarterback in 2016 to draw attention to police violence and other forms of racial injustice against African Americans. Racism is a topic that continues to make the league nothing but uncomfortable, and heading into Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles on Sunday, in the midst of a new controversy is probably the last place the NFL wants to be.
On Wednesday, outside SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, where Super Bowl LVI will kick off on Sunday, that’s exactly where NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell found himself. “We won’t tolerate racism,” he said when pressed by reporters during his annual “state of the league” news conference. “We won’t tolerate discrimination. If there are policies that we need to modify, we’re going to do that.” He offered no further details and did not specifically address Flores’s lawsuit.
Whether the lawsuit proves in a court of law that racism exists within the NFL’s hiring practices may be irrelevant in the end. The solution is right there, and it’s been there all along: Fix the problem. Just hire more Black head coaches.
The NFL just can’t seem to do it with any kind of regularity, to the point where it represents actual, sustained progress.
Richard Lapchick and the organization he runs, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, compile data on diversity in the NFL each year. The institute gave the league a B+ overall in its 2021 report for its racial hiring practices, for everything from coaching staff to C-suite executives to professional staff at the league office and within its member clubs.
Good news, until you get to this line, from Lapchick: “Unfortunately, the NFL began the regular season with only five coaches of color (15.6 percent). This is still lower than any other league in terms of racial hiring of head coaches or team managers. It is far short when comparing the 2021 season to the record of eight coaches of color who began the regular season in 2018.”
Only two people who identify as Black or multiracial have been hired for the nine NFL head coach vacancies that have been available since the regular season ended a month ago: Smith in Houston, and San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel in Miami.
With the additions of Smith and McDaniel, the NFL is back to five — and back to that low bar.
Both NFL coaching and media attract plenty of Black talent, so the problem isn’t availability of qualified candidates. The coordinator of the league’s best defense this past season and the men who ran the offense and defense of the last Super Bowl champion are all Black, and all went without being hired. Leslie Frazier, Byron Leftwich, and Todd Bowles are just three examples.
The league also has in place the Rooney Rule, named for the late Pittsburgh Steelers owner and league diversity committee chair Dan Rooney, mandating that every team with a head coaching vacancy interview one or more “diverse candidates” before making a new hire — “diverse” being one of the coded terms the league is still using for “nonwhite.”
Seven years after the inception of the Rooney Rule, the league expanded it to include general manager jobs and equivalent front-office positions, requiring each team to interview at least two Black, Indigenous, Asian, and/or Hispanic or Latino candidates who currently worked outside of their organization.
Other incentives have been added, such as draft pick rewards for teams who see their staffers hired to head coach and general manager positions via Rooney Rule interviews. (One example: After Cleveland Browns vice president of football operations Kwesi Adofo-Mensah left the team to become the new Vikings general manager this offseason, the NFL announced that the Browns will receive a third-round selection in both the upcoming 2022 and 2023 NFL drafts.) Nonetheless, Black coaches have shared their frustrations that there remains no path to advancement, and that “sham interviews and racial discrimination are part of the NFL hiring process,” NFL Media’s Jim Trotter wrote this week.
None of this, however, has been incentive enough to get NFL teams to actually hire Black head coaches. No amount of statistics, no mandated number of interviews with candidates of color, nor any promise of draft picks have been enough to get the NFL to hire Black candidates at anywhere near a percentage that’s in accordance with that of Black players on team rosters (nearly 58 percent).
In any discipline, including coaching, it is more difficult to visualize a goal that you cannot see. Limiting the number of Black head coaches is putting a ceiling on aspirations. That is one of the most insidious effects of systemic racism, whether or not that was the intent.
Acknowledging the lack of Black leadership in the league and addressing it head on didn’t have to be this difficult for the NFL. Jason Wright, president of the newly minted Washington Commanders, spelled it out last week in a speech before the Economic Club of Washington, DC. Wright, one of two Black NFL team presidents, made the solution plain: “If ownership is fully committed to diversity and inclusion, change can happen very rapidly.”
More casually put: When it comes to the discussion about hiring Black coaches, there’s nothing to it but to do it.
In a perhaps not-too-surprising twist, Flores was in the running for the head coach job that ultimately went to Lovie Smith.
In response to the news that the role would go to Smith, Flores’s attorneys, Douglas H. Wigdor and John Elefterakis, lauded the hiring but noted their concerns that Flores was passed over possibly because of his stance against discrimination in the league.
“Mr. Flores’ goal in bringing his case is to provide real opportunities for Black and minority candidates to be considered for coaching and executive positions within the NFL,” their statement read. “However, we would be remiss not to mention that Mr. Flores was one of three finalists for the Texans’ head coach position and, after a great interview and mutual interest, it is obvious that the only reason Mr. Flores was not selected was [because of] his decision to stand up against racial inequality across the NFL.”
Texans general manager Nick Caserio has said Flores’s lawsuit “really didn’t affect our process at all.”
The Washington Commanders’ Ron Rivera, who is of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent, is the only non-Black NFL coach who has spoken up in Flores’s defense. “This is a very accomplished coach,” Rivera told ESPN shortly after the lawsuit was filed. “I can see the frustration and I can feel the frustration. It’s almost as if this is your last resort. How does a guy like that get left out of the hiring cycle?”
“If you put his résumé — and took the name off and changed the team he coached for and grew up with — and put it on the table and looked at all the résumés, Brian Flores is the type of résumé you point at. Let’s judge on merit.”
If this were about meritocracy, though, Kaepernick would still be a quarterback. Flores would still be the Dolphins’ head coach. After the team suddenly canned Flores in January, following a season-ending win against Bill Belichick’s playoff-bound New England Patriots, Miami Herald sports writer Greg Cote called the firing, “Unjustified. Unfair. Shocking. Egregiously premature. Embarrassing. Irresponsible. Dumbfounding.”
What the Flores lawsuit exposes, once again, is that the NFL’s 32 teams could hire more Black head coaches if they wanted to. But despite all the requirements and incentives and qualified candidates, they don’t. The players may be mostly Black, and that is fine. The labor force can look one way, but leadership can’t.
Flores was arguably the best coaching candidate available, and still is. To that point, what is the smartest thing the NFL’s teams could do to begin addressing the valid concerns Flores spotlights in his lawsuit?
Hire Black coaches. And hire Brian Flores.