As a matter of law, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ hiring of Brian Flores as an assistant coach has no bearing on Flores’ racial discrimination lawsuit — which seeks class-action status — against the NFL.
Flores, formerly the Miami Dolphins’ head coach for three seasons, alleges that professional sports’ most successful and powerful league commits widespread malfeasance in its hiring practices, and he’s pushing forward with his complaint.
But there’s a whole lot to chew on regarding the optics of the NFL’s actions since Flores, who is Afro Latino, turned against the “family” — especially compared with the league’s response to Colin Kaepernick.
To point out there are differences in the two approaches is like saying the Cincinnati Bengals’ offensive line was overmatched against the Los Angeles Rams’ defensive line in Super Bowl LVI. The statement is true — but there’s so much more to the story.
Team owners were apoplectic after Kaepernick, the one-time San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback, sat on the bench and then kneeled before games during the 2016-17 season to shine a light on systemic oppression and police brutality.
Even as top league officials negotiated with players to end the protest movement Kaepernick ignited, some club owners continued to fuel the players’ frustration by making comments that proved they just didn’t get it. In contrast, others threatened to flout league rules to stop players from offending many fans and concerned corporate sponsors.
Kaepernick settled his collusion grievance against the league in February 2019. It alleged that team owners conspired to end his playing career because of his political beliefs. Afterward, the NFL remained silent on the central point of Kaepernick’s thesis: The league covets Black bodies for its on-field workforce but cares little about Black lives.
It wasn’t until June 2020 when commissioner Roger Goodell, backed into a corner by many star players, including Kansas City Chiefs superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes, admitted the league erred in handling the peaceful NFL player protests and condemned racism and affirmed that Black lives matter. Moreover, Goodell pledged his allegiance to the players in the battle for equal justice under the law.
In 2020, players who were Black or African American accounted for 57.5% of players on NFL rosters. And the number has been as high as 69.7%. To Kaepernick, nothing was more important than calling out the hypocrisy of team owners — the NFL has never had a Black one — in an overwhelmingly Black league.
Kaepernick was willing to die on that hill, and he did: Since the 2016-17 season ended, the talented passer hasn’t taken one snap from behind center in an NFL game. Flores noticed.
After filing his lawsuit this month, Flores, in a statement, alluded to the fact that his NFL coaching career could be over, saying, “God has gifted me with a special talent to coach the game of football, but the need for change is bigger than my personal goals.”
On Saturday, Flores got back in the game.
Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin hired Flores as a senior defensive assistant and linebackers coach. He’s expected to have significant input in the Steelers’ defensive approach. Tomlin is one of only three Black head coaches in the 32-team league (Lovie Smith of the Houston Texans and Mike McDaniel of the Miami Dolphins, whose father is Black, are the others).
Flores is spectacularly overqualified for his new gig, but at least he found work in the league after taking it on. Obviously, Kaepernick wasn’t as fortunate.
Also, the league moved at warp speed in acknowledging, well, yeah, something is amiss with its hiring efforts. Only four days after Flores took the league to court, Goodell revealed in a memo sent to owners that the NFL understands the concerns expressed by Flores and others, and it will initiate a comprehensive review of its entire approach to diversity, equity and inclusion.
Over the previous five hiring cycles, there have been 36 head coaching openings. Five Black men were hired to fill positions. Five. Let that sink in.
Many NFL observers may believe the league is now legally clear because Flores has a new job and an independent review of its hiring practices is underway. Not so fast, says Susan D. Carle, a law professor at the American University Washington College of Law.
The league still must contend with Flores’ complaint, said Carle, an expert in discrimination, labor and employment law.
“He was hired by one employer,” Carle said. “But the employer he alleges committed race discrimination … it doesn’t change that.”
Likewise, the potential class-action status of Flores’ lawsuit is not adversely affected while he continues to receive a paycheck from the league.
“No. Not at all,” Carle said. “It’s [still] a question of proving that the members of the class who applied for head coaching positions did not get them and that race discrimination was a motivating factor … in the employment decisions.”
And it’s important to remain clear-eyed about the focus of Flores’ lawsuit.
“The is about head coaching positions. And he wasn’t hired as a head coach,” Carle said. “The statistics around hiring for head coaching positions are really abysmal, which definitely indicates something’s wrong. That’s the issue the league needs to be fixing.”
No doubt. Perhaps the NFL has learned a thing or two about the optics of handling allegations of systemic discrimination raised by Black men in its workplace, but it has a long way to go to address the core concerns they raise.