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Flores Case, Rooney Rule Flaws Put Pressure on NFL Hiring Practices

The NFL will finish this season with eight more years of labor peace, $130 billion in new media deals and soaring valuations. Attendance and sponsorships are up. TV ratings are dominant. So what’s next for the world’s richest sports league?

Terry Robiskie felt he earned an opportunity to be a head coach after serving as an offensive coordinator and position coach for eight teams across 38 years in the NFL. But, says Robiskie, so did Emmitt Thomas, Willie Brown, Jimmy Raye and many other successful black assistants who never got the chance.

That list also includes Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy. The black play-caller has guided the KC offense to its third Super Bowl in five seasons yet continues to be passed over for head coach openings.

“If Eric Bieniemy doesn’t deserve to be a head coach in the NFL, then nobody does,” Robiskie said in an interview. “Nobody.”

As Super Bowl LVII nears, with the NFL’s coaching carousel in full twirl, the race discrimination case against the NFL and a handful of teams led by Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores continues to raise questions about the lack of black coaches and executives in the league. Flores, along with former Carolina Panthers head coach and new 49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks and longtime defensive coordinator Ray Horton, maintain in their court case that they and other black men and women have been discriminated against on the basis of their race. Alleged racist acts include discriminatory retention practices, termination decisions and unequal compensation relative to white peers.

The Rooney Rule, which requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for head coach and GM jobs, is depicted in the three coaches’ complaint as “well intentioned, but not working.” Many black coaches, the complaint charges, have participated in “sham and illegitimate” interviews where the team interviews black candidates without any intention of hiring them, just to comply with the rule. This alleged practice is portrayed as discriminatory and hurtful to candidates’ careers; being asked to interview but not receiving the job many times over could deter other teams from even asking.

The trio seek to represent a class defined as “all black head coaches, offensive and defensive coordinators and quarterback coaches, as well as general managers, and black candidates for those positions.” Whether the class is certified is still to be determined, but the case is not about alleged discrimination against a broader range of minority groups. 

According to Statista, 58% of NFL players are black, but only four head coaches are black—Todd Bowles (Buccaneers), Mike McDaniel (Dolphins), DeMeco Ryans (Texans) and Mike Tomlin (Steelers). There are eight black general managers or roughly equivalent positions—Kwesi Adofo-Mensah (Vikings), Andrew Berry (Browns), Chris Grier (Dolphins), Terry Fontenot (Falcons), Brad Holmes (Lions), Martin Mayhew (Commanders), Ran Carthon (Titans) and Ryan Poles (Bears). 

The Rooney Rule, established in 2003, has been tweaked over the years, including requiring at least two external minority or female candidates for head coaching jobs. Most recently, the NFL approved a requirement that every team hire at least one female or diverse candidate as an offensive assistant coach. But many believe the adjustments aren’t creating better results, because team owners make the final decision and face few repercussions for failing to diversify their hires.

“It is on them to hold each other accountable,” said Jeremi Duru, author of Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL and a law professor at American University Washington College of Law. “If they fail to do so, then they’re failing in their core commitment to bring equal opportunity to people of color in the league. It would show a real lack of leadership.”

The lack of black head coaches and general managers remains a heated issue, but the Fritz Pollard Alliance executive director Rod Graves believes it’s “misguided” to focus merely on the dearth at the head coach and GM level. It’s a symptom of a greater systemic issue, he says, when there’s a lack of diversity and DEI policies across NFL properties that stretch far beyond offseason hiring cycles. 

“The league must get serious about diversity,” Graves said in a phone interview. “I’ve not seen an approach that really embraces diversity as good for the game. When we can talk about it on that level, then we can get serious about making some advancement.”

The discrimination case perhaps serves as a microcosm of the league’s overall diversity issue when it comes to leadership positions.

Judge Valerie Caproni is currently assessing whether to grant the NFL’s motion to compel arbitration and stay the proceedings. The league maintains coaches contractually assent to arbitrate football-oriented employment disputes. The NFL’s constitution contemplates commissioner Roger Goodell as the arbitrator. 

According to a court filing obtained by Sportico, one section of Wilks’ contract with the Cardinals stated that the arbitrator “shall have the exclusive authority to resolve any dispute” regarding the contract, including the enforceability of its terms. Wilks, who last month was passed over for the Panthers’ head coaching job, which went to Frank Reich, likely had a similar clause in his Panthers contract. 

Attorneys for the three coaches insist that a “kangaroo court” would emerge if Goodell was empowered to decide the case. They argue that Goodell would be inherently conflicted since he oversees a league accused of systematic discrimination against black coaches and executives. Goodell is a relevant witness and linked to potentially crucial evidence, such as emails and personal files. The league is also not a party to employment contracts signed by a team and coach (or executive), which attorneys argue place those contracts outside the league’s purview.

The league’s constitution also doesn’t specify arbitration as appropriate for claims brought against the league itself. Similar arguments were raised by attorneys for Jon Gruden in his Nevada case against the NFL. Last year, a Nevada judge denied an NFL motion to compel arbitration. Even if Caproni sends to arbitration the claims against teams that employed black coaches, she might not come to the same conclusion regarding teams that interviewed but did not hire—and thus did not enter into a contract with—black coaches.

Caproni has set deadlines for the two sides to submit briefs this month.

Regardless of the result of the legal battle, there remains a wide racial disparity that can’t be addressed overnight. In the NFL, there have been recent attempts to bridge the gap. Teams can now receive compensatory draft picks if a diverse coach or executive is hired in the same or higher-level role with a different team. Last year, the league also launched an ongoing accelerator program where promising black assistant coaches and front office staff members meet with team owners and high-level executives to foster relationships and create a better pipeline.

The effectiveness of this route remains to be seen. As the Rooney Rule history shows, a system that encourages more diverse candidates isn’t a guaranteed fix—it’s only useful if the owners see it as a valuable asset and use it to make hires.

As Robiskie said, “You can’t make people do something that they don’t want to do.”

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