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The Hiring of NFL Coaches: Has The Brian Flores Lawsuit Had An Impact?

Last year Brian Flores, former head coach for the Miami Dolphins, filed a lawsuit against the National Football League, alleging it is “rife with racism.” A year later, the NFL continues to reckon with the issue.

The Flores lawsuit, filed on February 1, 2022, pointed out that even after the creation of the Rooney Rule, a mandate set up in 2003 to ensure minorities received equal treatment when applying for head coaching vacancies, the top coaching jobs are still not being given to black coaches.

flag with the NFL logo waving in the wind with the US flag blurred in the background.

According to documents, the filing was Flores’ hope that legal action, at the very least, would “…effectuate real change for the future.’’

Unfortunately, 12 months after the filing in federal court in New York, the lawsuit itself is sitting idle while a federal judge gathers written briefing from the parties involved to decide on whether the case should go to arbitration.

At the same time, team owners are on their annual hunt to fill coaching positions now that the NFL’s regular season is over. So far, their recent actions, specifically the hiring of the new Carolina Panthers coach for the 2023 season, show that “real change” may not be easy to “effectuate” after all.

Co-Plaintiffs In Flores Lawsuit

After Flores’s initial filing, two former coaches joined the lawsuit. The coaches are Steve Wilks, who served as head coach for the Arizona Cardinals in 2018, and Ray Horton, a former defensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans who is now the head coach for the Pittsburgh Maulers in the United States Football League, a new professional league, started in April of 2022. 

Horton’s decision to join was due to his alleged mistreatment by the Tennessee Titans. He believes that when he interviewed for the position of head coach in 2016, leadership had already decided to hire Mike Mularkey. And in reality, Mularkey regretted being a part of the hiring process for that job, going on record about the experience in a 2020 Steelers Realm podcast.

For Wilks, he joined the lawsuit due to being “unfairly and discriminatorily fired’’ by the Arizona Cardinals, who went on to hire Kliff Kingsbury, who is white and had no prior NFL experience.

Wilks alleges the Cardinals organization hired him simply to serve temporarily as a “bridge coach” and that he didn’t get “a meaningful opportunity to succeed” in Arizona (his replacement, Kingsbury, was fired this month after the Cardinals finished the season 4-13).

Last year, Wilks was hired as interim head coach for the Carolina Panthers five games into the 2022 season. The celebrated Charlotte, North Carolina native brought the Panthers up to a 6-6 record in 12 games, putting the team into playoff contention. 

However, Wilks’s experience and achievements were passed over when filling the head coaching slot full-time. On January 26, team owner David Tepper gave the permanent coaching slot to Frank Reich, who had been fired as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts in early November this season after a 3-5-1 start.

Lawyers representing Wilks in the federal lawsuit were quick to speak out after Tepper’s decision was announced: 

“We are shocked and disturbed that after the incredible job Coach Wilks did as the interim coach, including bringing the team back into playoff contention and garnering the support of the players and fans, that he was passed over for the head coach position by David Tepper,” Wigdor LLP’s statement said. “There is a legitimate race problem in the NFL, and we can assure you that we will have more to say in the coming days.”

Where Brian Flores Stands In February 2023

On February 19, 2022, Flores was hired as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ senior defensive assistant and linebackers coach. However, on February 6, several media outlets reported that Flores accepted the Minnesota Vikings’ offer to become the team’s defensive coordinator, replacing Ed Donatell.

Rumors were circulating that he was also considered to serve as defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos under the newly-minted Broncos coach, Sean Payton.

Flores was also scheduled for a second interview on Feb. 9 in Arizona for the position of head coach for the Cardinals.

No matter the reason for him to accept the Vikings’ job before the Cardinals’ second interview, the bottom line is his new job will bring him even more clout. Chances are, in the future, he will again be considered for head coach jobs as they become available.

However, the NFL still needs to improve at diversifying its top ranks. Since the regular season ended in December, owners for three NFL teams have hired new head coaches. These include the Carolina Panthers (Reich), the Denver Broncos selecting Sean Payton, and the Houston Texans selecting DeMeco Ryans. 

Currently, there are three black head coaches, including Mike Tomlin with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Todd Bowles with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and newly appointed DeMeco Ryans, who replaced black coach Lovie Smith (Smith was fired after one season with the team. However, Smith has a long history in the NFL, including serving as head coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Chicago Bears, who he took to the Super Bowl in 2006).

Super Bowl LVII: A Glimmer of Hope

For the first time in the NFL’s Super Bowl history, the championship game on Feb. 12 will kick off with two quarterbacks of African-American descent, Jalen Hurts for the Philadelphia Eagles and Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs.

While there have been black quarterbacks in Super Bowls, including Doug Williams, Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, as well as Mahomes, who led the Chiefs in a victory against the San Francisco 49ers in 2020, there is no arguing that having two black quarterbacks leading the Super Bowl, after more than fifty years worth of Super Bowls, is a feat long overdue.

And, there is no doubt there are many football fans who hope Super Bowl Sunday’s matchup of Mahomes and Hurts is an indicator of racial equity on the way, once and for all.