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Ex Dolphin Coach’s Suit Against NFL Shows Risk of Flash over Substance in DEI Initiatives

Diversity Labor & Employment

Brian Flores’ recent class action race discrimination lawsuit against the National Football League and its teams provides a cautionary tale as to what can happen when an organization professes to value diversity, equity and inclusion, but the employment decisions made within the organization do not put those statements into action. 

In 2003, the NFL announced the “Rooney Rule” under which league teams committed to interviewing at least two minority candidates when seeking to fill head coaching and senior level football operations positions. Although well intentioned, this rule has done little to move the needle on minority representation in NFL leadership.  Even though 70% of its players are Black, at the time Flores filed his suit there was only one Black head coach in the NFL. 

The allegations in Flores’ lawsuit shine an uncomfortable spotlight on the potential reasons why the Rooney Rule has done little to eliminate this disparity, thanks in large part to a now infamous misdirected congratulatory text message by legendary New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.  According to Flores’ lawsuit, three days before his scheduled interview for the New York Giants head coaching job, Belichick texted Flores congratulating him on being selected for the job.  The problem was that Belichick thought he was texting Brian Daboll, a white candidate who apparently had already been selected for the job, even though Flores had not even been interviewed yet. In other words, Flores’ interview appears to have been a sham, held only for the purpose of appearing to comply with the Rooney Rule. 

Flores further alleges that when he was interviewed by the Denver Broncos in 2019, the Bronco’s then general manager John Elway and other team executives showed up an hour late, appeared disheveled, and appeared to have been drinking the night before, sending the signal that the Broncos did not take the interview seriously and never considered Flores to be a legitimate candidate.

Flores was in the market for a new job in 2022 because he was terminated by the Miami Dolphins at the end of the 2021-2022 season despite guiding the Dolphins to their first back-to-back winning seasons since 2003.  He asserts that despite this success, his fate with the team was sealed in 2019 after the Dolphin’s owner offered to pay him $100,000 for each game the Dolphins lost, and he refused the owner’s directive to “tank” in order to improve the Dolphin’s draft pick.  Flores also asserts that he refused the owner’s directive to tamper with a prominent quarterback signed to another team in violation of league rules.  Flores claims that he subsequently was labeled as “difficult to work with” by Dolphins management, and that this reaction was reflective of “an all too familiar ‘angry black man’ stigma that is often casted upon Black men who are strong in their convictions while white men are coined as passionate for those very same attributes.”

Immediately after the lawsuit’s filing, the NFL issued a somewhat defiant statement that “[D]iversity is core to everything we do, and there are few issues on which our clubs and our internal leadership team spend more time. We will defend against these claims, which are without merit.” Several days later, after widespread public and media criticism, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was forced to strike a somewhat more conciliatory tone, stating that “[W]e understand the concerns expressed by Coach Flores and others this week. While the legal process moves forward, we will not wait to reassess and modify our strategies to ensure that they are consistent with our values and longstanding commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Although it remains to be seen whether Flores can prove his race discrimination claims in court, Belichick’s misdirected text appears to be as close to a “smoking gun” as you can get in terms of proving that the New York Giants, at least, were violating both the intent and the spirit of the Rooney Rule and calls into question whether  NFL team leaders are truly committed to the values they public espouse.

Although most employers are not subject to the same level of public scrutiny as the NFL and its teams, these events show the inherent business and legal risks that arise when an organization’s public DEI commitments are not accompanied by meaningful and often difficult cultural, attitudinal and operational changes within the organization.  As evidenced by Flores’ suit, a public commitment to  diversity, equity and inclusion without actual meaningful internal change can be worse than no commitment at all, particularly when it comes to creating potential legal risks.

For more information about how Franczek can work with your organization and other DEI experts to help your organization fulfill its DEI values please contact your Franczek attorney.