The Blind Side: NFL sued for racial discrimination

February 23, 2022

3 min read

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What's going on here?

Brian Flores, the former head coach of the Miami Dolphins, is suing the National Football League (NFL) and three of its franchises alleging racial discrimination in its hiring practices.

What does this mean?

Flores, an African American, alleges that he and other minority candidates are routinely held to higher standards, rejected or not considered at all for coaching and other leadership roles in the NFL. He describes the league as a “plantation” in which its “32 owners – none of whom are black – profit substantially from the labour of NFL players, 70% of whom are black”.

The crux of the lawsuit involves the New York Giants who passed over Flores for a coaching role. According to the suit, Flores determined that the Giants had already settled on another candidate, Brian Daboll, three days before he was due to be interviewed after receiving a mistaken congratulatory text message from Bill Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots. Flores therefore claims that the interview was a cynical attempt to satisfy a league mandate, known as the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview two minority candidates for head coaching and executive positions.

In a statement published by his law firm, Flores said “the need for change is bigger than my personal goals” and that he sincerely hoped that others would join him “to ensure that positive change is made for generations to come”.

What's the big picture effect?

The claims reinforce the wider racial and social reckoning other sports organisations around the world have struggled with in recent years. In the UK, the Premier League has struggled to tackle racist abuse of players. More recently, cricket was engulfed by allegations of institutional racism against British Asian players following complaints made by former pro Azeem Rafiq. But the roots of this reckoning can be traced back to the NFL, when ex-San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, began kneeling during the national anthem before games in 2016 to protest against racial injustice and police brutality. He has failed to receive an offer from another team ever since.

Flores now follows in Kaepernick’s footsteps in a season that also saw Jon Gruden, former head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders, fired after several of his emails containing racist, homophobic and misogynistic slurs were leaked. The NFL will therefore come under increasing pressure to purge what many perceive to be long-standing systemic racism within the game as it enters the off-season following a commercially successful Super Bowl earlier this month.

With only three POC (person of colour) head coaches in a league of 32 teams, many argue that the Rooney Rule has had an inverse effect since its introduction 20 years ago by effectively relegating minority candidates to a box-ticking exercise. What is more, there is broad agreement that major change will not come without the acquiescence of the billionaire, largely white, team owners, who have the power to hire and fire coaches as they see fit and tend not to be at the forefront of a changing culture. For Richard Lapchick, professor at the University of Central Florida, “that is where the buck finally stops”.

Whilst the lawsuit has already succeeded at reinvigorating a discussion around race and leadership in America’s most popular sport, an unfavourable court verdict would have huge implications for the NFL’s geographical expansion, spearheaded by its new International Home Marketing Area (HMA) Initiative. Designed to enable franchises to build their global brands whilst driving NFL fan growth internationally, the project will give teams access to specific high-growth markets, such as Mexico, Germany and the UK, to pursue commercial activities, from playing matches and hosting fan development events, to opening merchandise stores and setting up youth football initiatives.

But with Flores’ lawsuit seeking class action status, other victims of the NFL’s old boys network may be encouraged to come forward. To the extent that they do so in the weeks ahead, the weight of their claims may be detrimental for American football’s reputation. Any plans for future growth beyond US borders would therefore be undermined until the sport can prove to stakeholders abroad that it is doing enough to level the playing field.

Flores has since been hired as a senior defensive assistant and linebackers coach by Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin – the only African American head coach in the NFL. And whilst some corners may spin his swift return to coaching as a sign of how far the sport has progressed on race, it is evident that it must do more to tackle its racial blind side.

Report written by Charlie Parkman

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