Cardella: The Flores Case Goes Beyond Football

If you got sidetracked by the Whoopi Goldberg suspension, you might have missed a more important story last week about race in America. This story goes beyond a celebrity revealing a surprising level of ignorance about Hitler’s motive for exterminating the Jews in Europe. And the resulting treatment of that celebrity. I’m referring to the way pro football systemically gets around its requirement to increase diversity among the head coaching ranks in the National Football League.

The National Football League has always had a problem hiring more than a handful of ethnic minority coaches and senior executives over the years. In an effort to change that, the league adopted the “Rooney Rule” in 2003. The rule — named after former Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney — is a kind of affirmative action plan. It requires that at least one minority candidate — not in a team’s organization — be interviewed for each head coach and senior management opening. There is no quota system, only the requirement that minority candidates be given fair consideration. The plan was conceived in a spirit of fairness, but implemented in a world steeped in hypocrisy. At the moment, as head coaching openings are being filled, there is only one team that has a black head coach. So much for fairness. This in a league that is composed of 70% black players. It’s no coincidence that that team is the one owned by the Rooney family (Mike Tomlin has served as the Steelers’ head coach since 2007). Two other head coaches represent ethnic minorities, Ron Rivera (Washington Commanders) and Robert Saleh (New York Jets).

From the beginning, the Rooney Rule’s promise was turned into a sham by some of the owners. It required good faith where there isn’t any. As each year went by, the Rooney Rule failed and became an embarrassment to the league.

The hypocrisy inherent in the application of the Rooney Rule was well-known throughout the league. In practice, owners would make certain to include at least one qualified minority candidate in their interviews, without any intention of hiring them. You can imagine what it does to a “candidate” who goes through this meaningless process numerous times knowing that they have no chance of getting hired.

When I co-hosted a pro football talk show, we often discussed the failure of the Rooney Rule. Said that if the league didn’t act to correct the situation, the hypocrisy would blow up in its face. And so it has. The NFL acted too little and too late. And last week, one of two fired minority coaches — Brian Flores of the Miami Dolphins — decided that he wouldn’t take it anymore. He’s suing the NFL and three of its franchises.

Flores is 40 years old with the requisite coaching experience. He coached the Dolphins for three seasons, in two of those, the team had a winning record. This past season, his team won 8 of its final 9 games. But the Dolphins once again failed to make the playoffs. He was fired by owner Steve Ross.

Flores believes that he has proof that the Giants had already hired another white guy named Brian before he — Flores — was even interviewed. Flores also believes that he can prove that this was common practice in the NFL — conducting sham interviews with minorities when the decision had already been made to hire white candidates. Flores is suing three other teams for indulging in phony hiring practices.

I wondered whether Flores had a solid enough case to prove what any football fan could tell you was true. The Rooney Rule was being systematically subverted. Some of us questioned the way the process treated former Eagles player and assistant coach Duce Staley during the two interviews he had with the Eagles for the head coaching job. Staley had been bypassed for a little-known assistant in Indianapolis without any previous head coaching experience. Although in fairness to Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, when he made his first head coaching hire, he hired an African-American with no head coaching experience — Ray Rhodes. It turns out Flores claims that he has more evidence against Ross than just violating the Rooney Rule.

Flores claims that he can prove that his owner offered him a $100,000 bonus for each game he would lose. For non-football fans, if a team has no chance to make the playoffs, it may feel they’re better off intentionally losing or, tanking, as it’s known. Teams draft college players in the reverse order in which they finish — the worse the team finishes, the higher its draft pick. If there’s one thing the league can’t tolerate, it’s intentionally losing. Ross denies he ever offered Flores money for losing games. Hue Jackson, former black head coach of the Cleveland Browns, claims owner Jimmy Haslam also offered a bonus to tank games. The NFL can’t abide anyone tampering with the integrity of the outcomes of its games. Not with its new partnership with the gambling industry. In the week leading up to the Super Bowl, topics such as racial discrimination and tanking games are the last thing the NFL wants the national conversation to be about. The league just completed what most observers believe is its finest slate of playoff games ever. But the NFL didn’t get the match-up it especially wanted for the big game. It needs to spend the week hyping the unexpected matchup of the Rams and Bengals, who will meet in the Super Bowl.

It’s the league’s own fault. Despite the bountiful revenue the NFL is unquestionably awash in, the league has consistently shot itself in the foot when it comes to social issues. Its Commissioner, Roger Goodell, and the largely white male owners have once again stepped on their own product.

As for Brian Flores, he may not be a great coach. Or even a good coach. And it’s likely he will never get another NFL coaching job. But he just might go down as the man who brought justice to pro football.