Former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores has filed a civil rights lawsuit against the NFL, claiming the world’s richest sports league has discriminatory hiring practices, made worse by its own attempts to force teams to interview minority candidates.
The bombshell suit, filed on the first day of Black History Month, is the most prominent legal challenge yet to hiring practices in the NFL, which currently has just one black head coach. The 58-page complaint, filed in New York court on Tuesday, includes text messages from Bill Belichick, allegations of Denver Broncos executives conducting an interview disheveled and hung over, and claims that the New York Giants interviewed Flores days after telling other people the team had already chosen someone else.
It also alleges damning behavior beyond racial discrimination. Flores claims that Stephen Ross, the billionaire owner of the Dolphins, offered him $100,000 for every loss the team suffered during the 2019 season to improve its draft status. A short time later, Flores claims, Ross pressured him to violate league tampering rules in pursuit of an unnamed free agent quarterback.
Flores seeks for the case to be certified as a class on behalf of black coaches and executives.
“I understand that I may be risking coaching the game that I love and that has done so much for my family and me,” Flores said in a statement. “My sincere hope is that by standing up against systemic racism in the NFL, others will join me to ensure that positive change is made for generations to come.”
The NFL said in a statement that it “will defend against these claims, which are without merit.” The Giants, Broncos and Dolphins all issued statements denying parts of Flores’ claims. The Patriots declined to comment.
The Dolphins disputed Flores’ claims, saying the team learned of the suit through media reports on Tuesday afternoon. “We vehemently deny any allegations of racial discrimination and are proud of the diversity and inclusion throughout our organization,” the team said in a statement. “The implication that we acted in a manner inconsistent with the integrity of the game is incorrect. We will be withholding further comment on the lawsuit at this time.” The Dolphins didn’t directly address the allegations of tanking during the 2019 season.
The complaint includes claims for discrimination under federal civil rights law and discrimination under New York and New Jersey civil rights laws. Flores charges that he was discriminated against on the basis of his race. This alleged discrimination arose in the form of “sham and illegitimate interviews” as well as “discriminatory retention practice and/or termination decisions.”
The lawsuit is a putative class action, meaning one that is not yet a class action but that seeks certification by the judge. The proposed class would include “all Black Head Coach, Offensive and Defensive Coordinators and Quarterbacks Coaches, as well as General Managers, and Black candidates for those positions during the applicable statute of limitations period.” The class would thus include not only coaches but also candidates for positions. Generally classes must include at least 25 persons to be viable (among other requirements). The inclusion of candidates would help Flores argue there are enough, though it’s unknown if other potential class members would wish to join the case. A hearing on class certification would not occur until several other steps in the litigation process had taken place.
Attorney Brad Sohn, who represented former Buccaneers kicker Lawrence Tynes in the kicker’s case against the team over a career-ending MRSA infection, said he is skeptical of the lawsuit’s chances to advance in the legal system.
“While I think there is a lot of legal significance to the text messages, I think receiving class action treatment for a case such as this one presents a VERY steep uphill climb,” Sohn said in a text message.
Although not a defendant, Belichick is poised to be a key witness. It was his text exchange with Flores that inadvertently tipped Flores off that, Flores charges, the Giants had already decided to hire Buffalo Bills coordinator Brian Daboll before they interviewed Flores. Both Flores and Daboll previously coached under Belichick, who thought he was texting Daboll but was in fact texting Flores.
In the coming weeks, the Giants and other defendant teams will answer the complaint. Expect them to contend that their decision-making was not discriminatory. The teams are likely to point out they are obligated under the Rooney Rule to interview minority candidates and their actions were at least in part designed to comply with the league rule.
The Giants said in a statement that the team interviewed an “impressive and diverse group of candidates” and that Flores was in contention for the job until the “eleventh hour.” That seems to imply that while team leadership might have leaned in the direction of hiring Daboll—whom other teams with vacancies had pursued—they had not signed him to an employment contract. The Giants can also ask why Flores would agree to do the interview if he thought it was a sham.
As for the Dolphins, the team could note that Flores was not fired with cause and that teams have broad discretion on firing decisions—even when decisions are perceived as unfair—provided they meet liquidated damages provisions in a coach’s contract. It does not appear that Flores contends the Dolphins failed to pay him out or owe him contractual money.
A key point in this case, which as of this publication has not been assigned to an SDNY district court judge, is if it advances past a motion to dismiss. Should Flores defeat a motion to dismiss, the case would enter pretrial discovery where his attorneys could demand sworn testimony, email records, texts and other materials from the Giants, Dolphins and league officials. Belichick and employees of other teams connected to Flores would also likely be expected to give sworn testimony and electronic evidence. To that point, in his complaint, Flores mentions an alleged sham interview with John Elway and the Denver Broncos in 2019. Elway would surely be of interest to Flores’ attorneys. The league would be inclined to reach a financial settlement with Flores before the case could embarrass officials and potentially suggest they are racially insensitive.
The Broncos denied Flores' accusations, calling them "blatantly false" while providing additional details about the club's interview with Flores, according to ESPN. A team representative didn't respond to a request from Sportico.
Particularly given that it is a potential class action, the case could take several years to play out before there is a jury trial. Flores, as his complaint acknowledges, must also exhaust administrative procedures in pursuing a civil rights case before a court would be able to decide it. Flores is being represented by Wigdor LLP, which led discrimination suits against Fox News and the New York Post, in addition to co-counsel Elefterakis, Elefterakis & Panek, which is also based in New York City.
The decision by Flores to sue could make it more difficult for him to land NFL coaching interviews. Teams might privately worry if they interview him and not hire him, they could face legal exposure. Flores is no doubt aware of that risk.
The lawsuit includes statistics on the racial background of the league’s highest-profile management positions. It says the NFL has one black head coach, four black offensive coordinators, 11 black defensive coordinators and six black general managers.
(This article has been updated in the sixth and 18th paragraphs to include information from ESPN regarding the Denver Broncos' denial of Flores' claims.)