Former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, a Black Honduran American born in Brownsville, Brooklyn, is suing the NFL, the Dolphins, the Denver Broncos, and New York Giants for racial discrimination, calling the league’s “Rooney Rule” —a policy meant to promote diversity across coaching and other senior operations positions— a “sham.”
Explaining the lawsuit requires a bit of backstory.
After losing 59-10 and 43-0 in back-to-back games at the start of the 2019 season, some analysts were describing the Miami Dolphins as “the worst team in NFL history.” But general manager Chris Grier insisted that the team was planning to build a “long-term winner.” On ESPN’s Get Up the following Monday, former cornerback-turned-ESPN analyst Domonique Foxworth called what the Dolphins were doing —purposing losing games with an eye toward better draft prospects in 2020— “unethical and morally reprehensible.”
In pro football, the more a team loses, the better its draft pick in the following season. So piling up losses increases the odds of a team getting one of, if not the absolute best player coming out of college. Typically, it’d be a quarterback, and an elite one could change a team’s outlook almost instantly. Just look at 2020 No. 1 overall pick, Joe Burrow, who is playing in the Super Bowl on February 13.
The Dolphins had named Brian Flores as their head coach in February 2019. He inherited one of the league’s worst teams, according to FiveThiryEight, Sports Illustrated, CBS Sports, ESPN, and just about anyone who knew what a touchdown was. It’s why many were shocked that the Dolphins, after starting the 2019 season 0-7, won five of their last nine games, including an upset over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the last week of the season.
Flores led the Dolphins to a remarkable 24-25 record in his three years as head coach, including a 10-6 run in 2020, just missing the playoffs, and a 9-8 record in 2021 after a 1-7 start, including a seven-game winning streak.
It’s worth noting that, when Dolphins fired him on January 10 of this year, Flores had the team’s best winning percentage of any coach since Dave Wannstedt, who coached from 2000 to 2004. Flores is also the first Dolphins coach to have two winning seasons since Wannstedt.
Brian Flores releases a statement following his lawsuit against the NFL, teams.
"I understand that I may be risking coaching the game I love"
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 1, 2022
In his lawsuit, Flores doesn’t merely allege that he was unjustly fired, a thought commonly shared in the pundit world, but that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross attempted to bribe him into losing.
“During the 2019 season, Mr. Ross told Mr. Flores that he would pay him $100,000 for each game lost that year,” reads the lawsuit. “Then, when the Dolphins started winning games, due in no small part to Mr. Flores’ coaching, Mr. Flores was told by the team’s General Manager, Chris Grier, that ‘Steve’ was ‘mad’ that Mr. Flores’ success in winning games that year was ‘compromising [the team’s] draft position.’”
Shortly after Flores was let go, rumors leaked saying that Flores was, among other things, “incredibly difficult to work with.”
"Flores rode his players hard over making weight and speaking to reporters, embarrassing them in front of teammates, or even keeping them home from road trips over relatively trivial offenses."
— Matt Cannata (@CannataPFN) January 10, 2022
Part of Flores’ lawsuit concerns a text exchange with New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, whom Flores coached under from 2008 through 2018 in various roles before accepting the Dolphins head coaching job. Before Flores’ scheduled interview with the Giants on January 28, Flores received a text from Belichick congratulating him on becoming the team’s new head coach. Apparently the Giants had already decided to hire Brian Daboll from the Buffalo Bills, which is the Brian that Belichick thought he was texting.
Texts from Bill Belichick to Brian Flores, congratulating Brian for landing the #Giants job.
Belichick thought he was texting Brian Daboll. He was texting Flores by mistake. pic.twitter.com/Y686XcjYC3
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) February 1, 2022
Daboll was also on Belichick’s Patriots staff with Flores from 2013 to 2016.
Flores says that his “sham interview” with the Giants interview was merely to satisfy the Rooney Rule, which requires NFL teams to interview at least one minority coach in their hiring process.
At the time of this writing, only one current NFL head coach is Black, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who has held the position since 2007. Tomlin’s built a 162-94 combined regular-season and playoff record, and one Super Bowl victory. He’s widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league—ad was also famously “too hip-hop” to be the Dolphins head coach.
Here is Brian Flores' account of his involvement in the Giants' head-coaching search from the complaint he filed today against the NFL, Giants and others: pic.twitter.com/q4Ak3yC6B3
— Dan Duggan (@DDuggan21) February 1, 2022
Flores also alleges that during his interview process with the Denver Broncos for the head coach vacancy in 2019, high-ranking executives, including then-General Manager John Elway and President and CEO Joe Ellis, showed up an hour late, hungover and “completely disheveled,” according to the lawsuit.
“It was clear from the substance of the interview that Mr. Flores was interviewed only because of the Rooney Rule, and that the Broncos never had any intention to consider him as a legitimate candidate for the job,” the lawsuit claims. “Shortly thereafter, Vic Fangio, a white man, was hired to be the Head Coach of the Broncos.”
The Giants, Dolphins, and Broncos have all denied the claims made by Flores, as has the NFL.
NFL statement on Brian Flores’ lawsuit: pic.twitter.com/LaJVJuw3gS
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) February 1, 2022
On Thursday, a day after Flores began making appearances on networks like ESPN, CNN, and MSNBC, Ross himself called the allegations malicious and vowed to defend himself. On Thursday afternoon, John Elway vehemently denied that he was hungover, but did acknowledge not sleeping well the night before.
“What Flores is doing now takes courage, and I hope he inspires others to share their stories,” Jamal Murphy, a lawyer and contributor to ESPN’s The Undefeated, told Latino Rebels on Thursday. “Flores has a chance to win his legal case against the NFL, but it is slim. Section 1981 discrimination cases are notoriously and intentionally tough to win because the plaintiff must prove that race was the central reason for the denial and not merely just a motivating factor.”
“Basically,” Murphy adds,” you have to show that the employer had no legitimate reason to go in another direction and you need definitive proof that race was the main factor. That’s always tough to prove. That may be why Flores has taken the media approach, and the complaint reads more like a think piece, in order for Flores to try to win in the court of public opinion and put pressure on the NFL. It will be tough for Flores to get past the NFL’s motion to dismiss the case. So, yes, the NFL could skate, at least legally.”
Flores’ claims of being pressured to lose games on purpose are not unheard of.
The Cleveland Browns were one the laughing-stock of the NFL, putting together overmatched rosters and going 1-31 between the 2016 and 2017 football seasons under head coach Hue Jackson, before the team fired him in the middle of a 2-5-1 campaign in 2018.
In his appearance on SportsCenter on Wednesday, Jackson spoke to SportsCenter indicating he too was offered money to lose.
“I went to arbitration in this case against the Browns where I didn’t win anything,” Jackson told ESPN. “People don’t understand that I tried to sound this alarm.”
Jackson said he “wasn’t offered $100,000 for every game, but there was a substantial amount of money made within what happened in this situation every year at the end of it. (I can) prove anything and everything that I’m saying. The National Football League knows I can prove anything and everything I’m saying.”
Jackson also said he’d join Flores’ class action lawsuit if necessary.
“I’m not afraid to stand behind Brian when it comes to anything, because I know what our men go through, and I don’t want this for the men that come behind me, at all.”
Former Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis also recounted an interview he had with the Carolina Panthers back in 2002 that was seemingly a Rooney Rule checkbox. Then-owner Jerry Richardson famously faced misconduct within the last five years and sold the team—but not before having a statue of himself built outside the stadium, which was removed in June 2020 out of fear that protestors would destroy it amid civil unrest.
Marvin Lewis says Panthers interviewed him for head coaching job after he knew the Panthers were going to hire John Fox pic.twitter.com/6gUdzNE7Fr
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) February 2, 2022
On whether or not making this a class-action suit helps Flores’ case, Murphy says, “I think it helps mostly with it being certified as a class action. They still have the extremely heavy burden of proof. We all know that their basic complaint is true, but the right-wing Supreme Court has intentionally made these cases almost impossible to win.”
Big businesses in America often slide when pressed, even when their social shortcomings —often by design and preservation—are apparent.
Ross would want us to believe he’s been a public advocate of Black causes, but the sincerity of his actions has come into question in recent years. Ross is the founder of Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), which refers to itself as a “national nonprofit that educates and empowers the sports community to eliminate racial discrimination, champion social justice and improve race relations.”
In the aforementioned 2019 campaign, then-Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills, one of the only NFL players who kneeled during the national anthem in an act of raising social justice awareness, called out team owner Ross for donating to then-President Donald Trump’s campaign. Stills’ position was that Ross’ actions were contradictory, and the two agreed to disagree.
Over two weeks later, Stills was traded to the Houston Texans.
My Brothers @E_Reid35 @KSTiLLS @iThinkIsee12 continue to fight for the people, even in the face of death threats. They have never moved past the people and continue to put their beliefs into action. Stay strong Brothers!!! ✊? pic.twitter.com/OQClsZXD5V
— Colin Kaepernick (@Kaepernick7) August 18, 2019
In June 2020, during the supposed social justice uprising nationwide, Ross pledged $13 million to his initiative to help combat racism. Stills, unimpressed, called it a tax write-off.
Donation to his non profit = Tax write off https://t.co/mUk6Uc9J6n
— Kenny Stills (@KSTiLLS) June 27, 2020
Flores and Stills even had a disagreement prior to the 2019 season regarding Jay-Z’s partnership with the league, including a comment that suggested moving past kneeling, which Stills took exception to. Stills is one of several NFL current and former players, as well as coaches, who have weighed in publicly, which includes him saying, “It’s obvious we need more minorities in leadership positions: Ownership, GMs, front office, and league office.”
First want to say that my situation with Coach Flores has nothing to do with his lawsuit with the league. He did what he did then. Hindsight is always 20/20.
— Kenny Stills (@KSTiLLS) February 3, 2022
Others who spoke in solidarity with Flores include New Orleans wide receiver Michael Thomas, Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Darius Slay, former Washington Football Team quarterback-turned-ESPN analyst Robert Griffin III, and Patriots safety Devin McCourty, who played under Flores.
One peer who spoke out was Washington Commanders head coach Ron Rivera, who is Puerto Rican and Mexican, one of three coaches of color in the NFL, and the only Latino.
“This is a very accomplished coach,” Rivera said, “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.
“Leslie Frazier is the type of résumé you point at. Eric Bieniemy is the type of résumé you point at. Why? Because the merit,” Rivera continued, highlighting other accomplished and overqualified Black coaches. “These guys deserve opportunities. They deserve a chance, and to me, that’s what the Rooney Rule stood for. It’s a chance to open the door and get your foot in and then merit speak for itself. That’s the issue here.”
So now the league is dealing with prominent suits from tenured coaches on opposite sides of the social spectrum.
Sure, people will counter by saying that Flores isn’t the perfect martyr, but he doesn’t need to be. In fact, few in American history are. He has the face and the name the country needs for this moment. He has the desire to create substantive change, and the courage to put his career on the line to do so. Now he needs strength in numbers, starting with coaches and players, to form the most important team he will have been a part of yet.
As for coaching, as of now he’s still a candidate for the Texans and Saints head coaching vacancies. Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said Flores was “very impressive,” this week.
We’ll see if it means anything.
Bryan Fonseca is an award-winning content creator and sports journalist. He is also the author of Hidalgo Heights, and the founder, host and executive producer of the Ain’t Hard To Tell Podcast and Side Hustle. Twitter: @BryanFonsecaNY