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The NFL promised to do better on race, but Brian Flores's lawsuit says it failed

“With 70 percent Black players and one Black head coach, the league is showing who it is,” said a former NFL agent.
Colin Kaepernick and Brian Flores
Flores's lawsuit comes nearly six years after former quarterback Colin Kaepernick began to kneel in protest during the national anthem before every game to call out systemic racism. His protest likely led to his ouster from professional football.Elise Wrabetz / NBC News; Getty Images

Derold McIver said he finds it difficult to watch NFL games. He spent six years as an agent representing players, and the “up close and personal” view left him sour on the game he enjoyed and embraced much of his life.

So when he learned about the civil lawsuit Brian Flores filed Tuesday against the league and three teams for racial discrimination in hiring practices, he said, his first reaction was: “About time.”

“The only surprise was that he actually did it,” said McIver, who represented NFL players from 2000 to 2006 and is now a banker. “Only the NFL can get away with its discriminatory practices it has for so long with nothing happening, no one exposing it in detail — until now.

“I quit being an agent because I saw so much that made me realize I had to move on, so much racism in so many different ways that I couldn’t do it anymore,” he said. “Now, Brian Flores has given more than just saying, ‘The NFL discriminates.’ He’s provided proof that will stand up in court.”

The lawsuit comes nearly six years after former quarterback Colin Kaepernick began to kneel in protest during the national anthem before every game to call out systemic racism. His protests that season most likely led to the end of his NFL career after he took fire from leaders within the league and spectators in the stands. The NFL then had to face protests by more players and calls for better representation in a league in which Black players make up 70 percent of those on the field even as they are vastly underrepresented in leadership positions. 

In 2020 the league introduced the use of terms like “End Racism” and “It Takes All of Us” emblazoned across end zones and T-shirts, but according to Flores’s lawsuit, little had changed to open more opportunities to coaches of color, even with the NFL’s 19-year-old “Rooney Rule,” which was implemented to grant Black coaches and other coaches from marginalized backgrounds equal opportunities to interview for head coaching jobs. 

At the same time, McIver and other lawyers and agents said in interviews that they would be surprised if the case advanced to court, for various reasons. One reason, some contend, is that the league would settle before more light was shined on the ineffectiveness of the Rooney Rule. Only one Black man, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, holds a head coaching position.

“With 70 percent Black players and one Black head coach, the league is showing who it is,” McIver said. “If you didn’t have any idea of this, you weren’t paying attention. But Brian Flores put it all out there. The evidence is right there. It’s a matter of if he gets justice in the court system, through arbitration, because he won’t get it on the field.”

Mario Williams, a civil rights lawyer in Atlanta, said Flores has a strong case because his claims are not just anecdotal. 

“He has the statistics,” he said. “Those statistics are damaging. Seventy percent Black players, one Black head coach, 32 rich white owners. That’s a farce. And the NFL doesn’t want to deal with this because he has the truth on his side — that billionaire white owners that typically are older in age, coming out of a different generation, who are essentially operating a plantation.

“Nobody wants to hear those inflammatory words, but it’s the truth. And the hypocrisy of the league is that they say they will fight this when they know the truth,” Williams said. “And they won’t fight it. They will settle, because fighting it is essentially saying you endorse racism.”

The NFL said in a statement: “We will defend these claims, which are without merit.”

Williams added that Flores’ suit epitomizes the struggle for Black people in all walks of life in America. 

Instead of the wealthy white owners’ “using their time wisely to try to enrich the diversity of a league that is predominantly Black, they’d rather circumvent the rules,” Williams said. “And as far as players are concerned, this is exactly why some form of affirmative action and other policies and procedures must not only be in place but must be diligently enforced.”

The Rooney Rule appears to be at the heart of Flores’ discontent in a charge against the New York Giants, who had decided on a head coach three days before they interviewed Flores, his 58-page lawsuit claims. Established in 2003, the rule requires NFL teams to interview a minimum number of Black and minority candidates for head coaching or executive positions. In the suit, Flores said he was being interviewed for the job only to satisfy the rule and that most hiring rounds for such positions are similarly padded with candidates of color to little effect.

“The Rooney Rule is a joke in terms of actualizing a positive ideal,” said Carl Douglas, a lawyer in Los Angeles who was on O.J. Simpson’s legal team when he was on trial in the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. “Certainly, Flores’ claim is righteous. Certainly, Black coaches are not given the latitude to fail. But how do you make rich white men do something they are not otherwise inclined to do by hiring people who don’t look like them?” 

Douglas posed another question: “Does Flores not ever want to coach again?” 

The complaint, to Douglas, harks back to major-league baseball player Curt Flood, who sued over being traded in 1970. He lost his case, which reached the Supreme Court, but his lawsuit ushered in the free agency era in baseball by 1976, forever altering the way teams operated.  

Still, Flood’s career was ostensibly over with his challenge. “He changed baseball, but his career was nothing after that,” Douglas said.

The comparison could also be made with Kaepernick, whose career in football unceremoniously ended after the 2016-17 season.

Flores made the rounds on television news and sports shows Wednesday morning, saying: “This is bigger than football. ... We’re actually changing the hearts and minds of those who make decisions who hire head coaches, executives, etc.”

Safarrah Lawson, the president and CEO of STL Sports Management agent group, which represents nine NFL players, found it admirable that Flores was transparent about his disenchantment. 

“From my experience of more than 20 years in the NFL, what he’s saying is pretty accurate from what I have read,” Lawson said. “Most interviews are shams. It’s par for the course.

“But I don’t think winning for him means a victory in court. Winning for him is shining a light on the process and making the process fair,” Lawson added. “And in that way, he’s already won partly by shining the light. But it’s not about monetary gain. Any progress will be incremental until there are systemic changes in how the hiring practices are done, not solely by the owners, because they are going to hire people they know and like, and those people look like them.”

Douglas pointed out that the Dolphins’ general manager, Chris Grier, and general counsel, Myles Pistorius, are Black. So is Minnesota Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, who is reported to be trying to lure University of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who is white, for the team’s vacancy. There are only three Black general managers in the league, with three openings.

“There are Black GMs in the NFL,” Douglas said, “and they haven’t hired Black coaches. Their bosses are billionaire Anglo-Saxon men.”

Williams said the teams involved in Flores’ suit — the Giants, the Miami Dolphins and the Denver Broncos — should be admonished and heavily fined. He also said he thinks the suit will wrap up quickly but that beyond a legal outcome, the bigger questions should focus more on how the league will change. 

What is the NFL “going to do to have much more or much greater enforcement mechanisms in place for fairness in hiring?” he asked. “To really make this happen, to stop putting rules that people just give lip service to easily evade?”

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