One year from now, when NFL teams fire their yearly batch of coaches and begin scrambling to fill their vacancies with predetermined candidates of their choice, the fallout of the Brian Flores lawsuit will be felt.
That’s regardless of what happens in a courtroom, regardless of whether the NFL actually decides to investigate serious allegations of tanking (Haha!). The text messages Flores included in his lawsuit, from Bill Belichick allegedly congratulating a different candidate on likely getting a job Flores was still yet to interview for, and Flores’s face on television Wednesday morning, describing what it felt like to walk into what he felt was not a legitimate interview, will resonate with coaches of color around the NFL who know this feeling all too well.
For the league and its teams, the consequences will be when minority coaches refuse to be the candidate who interviews with a club simply to check off a box. At the moment, teams hiring for general manager, head coach or coordinator jobs must interview two candidates of color before making a final decision. Many teams have made a decision at the beginning of the process and try to reverse-engineer the requirements from there. In the future, coaches of color will likely be far more judicious about the process. That’s what we’re hearing now. Sadly, they will go beyond due diligence in order to avoid a fate similar to Flores’s. Owners will have to earn back a level of trust they have squandered.
The Rooney Rule will never be the same (if it ever was anything to begin with). A few years back, I remember speaking to Tony Dungy about the spirit of the rule in light of Jon Gruden’s hiring in Las Vegas. It was clear that the Raiders had set up sham interviews with candidates of color, (then-USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin and then-Raiders offensive line coach Bobby Johnson). Raiders owner Mark Davis was asked by Sports Illustrated if he would have fired Jack Del Rio if he didn’t think Gruden was interested in coming back. Davis said: “I don’t see how I could have. To spend $20 million [on a buyout], and on top of that hire Tee Martin? No.” Martin, who is Black, is currently the wide receivers coach in Baltimore and has long wanted to be a head coach. He’s been coaching high-level football since 2009.
Dungy said the rule, at its core, was supposed to slow the process down. To open owners’ minds. Mike Tomlin was the gold standard, having walked into the Steelers’ facility as a relative unknown on the coaching circuit. If Pittsburgh benefitted so much from considering someone they would not have initially, wouldn’t other teams want to enjoy the same benefits and sustained success?
The answer was a resounding no. Owners, for the most part, hire people they’re familiar with; there is only one owner from a minority background in the NFL. The problem, in recent years, is not necessarily the massive disparity between coaches of diverse backgrounds and white coaches (Mike Tomlin, who is Black; Ron Rivera, who is of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent; and Robert Saleh, the first Muslim American head coach are the lone non-white coaches in the NFL), but the expedited rise of white coaches and the experience gap between them and their Black counterparts with longer resumes.
The Texans, for example, are considering recently retired quarterback Josh McCown—seriously enough to have interviewed him twice—as their head coach. McCown has never held a professional coaching position. They fired David Culley, who is Black and has been coaching in the NFL since 1994, after one season despite Culley overperforming with a bottom-rung roster. Steve Wilks, who is Black and had been coaching professionally since 1996 and in the NFL since 2005, was fired after one year in Arizona. He was replaced by Kliff Kingsbury, a coach with no NFL experience who had just been fired at Texas Tech. Kingsbury, who is 24-24-1 in three seasons, remains the Cardinals’ head coach.
Nothing against McCown, who may very well turn out to be a great head coach, but if he is hired amid this diversity crisis, it will signal a full-scale optical meltdown. Owners may have deeper reasoning for their decisions, but there are still plenty of troubling juxtapositions that leave the minority coaching community cynical about the process. How do Andy Reid offensive coordinators (Matt Nagy, Doug Pederson) fly off the board and become head coaches until the offensive coordinator, Eric Bienemy, is Black? How does anyone tangentially connected to Sean McVay get a head coaching job (Zac Taylor, Brandon Staley) until the defensive coordinator, Raheem Morris, is Black?
On Page 9 of Flores’ lawsuit, he requests that teams “consider side-by-side comparisons of objective criteria, such as past performance, experience and objective qualifications.” He also wants to “require NFL Teams to reduce to writing the rationale for hiring and termination decisions, including a full explanation of the basis for any subjective influences.”
While this could turn into another Rooney Rule—well-meaning requirements that NFL teams manipulate and alter as they see fit—it would at least force them to put their ingrained biases on paper and admit that they’re not always hiring the most qualified person for the job. Even hearing that would be a breath of fresh air for candidates who have been misled for far too long.
In the meantime, the answer will lie in an outright refusal to participate in the process until it feels more open and honest. It’s the only way. If teams aren’t going to follow the spirit of the Rooney Rule, why should coaches drag themselves all over the country just to help them avoid fines and public scrutiny? Flores took the first massive step among active coaches to build a platform for overlooked minority candidates. Next, we’ll see an outpouring of support from retired coaches who were forced to stay silent for so long. After that, the NFL better brace for the flimsy facade they’ve propped up around diversity hiring to collapse.
More NFL Coverage:
• Flores Is Fearless Enough to Force the NFL’s Hand
• A Legal Assessment of Flores’s Lawsuit
• The Bengals Are NFL’s Best Cinderella Story in Decades
• Sean McVay Reached Back to the Past to Inspire the Rams
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.