Things got a whole lot harder for the NFL on Thursday.
It had already become clear that Brian Flores will not easily be bowed; the fact that he filed his lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in NFL coach hiring practices in the first place gave us the first indication that’s true, but his moves since and his demeanor only strengthen that belief.
Put simply, the NFL wasn’t going to head Flores off at the plaintiff pass by handing him a check and asking how many zeroes he wanted on it to go away quietly.
But while any Black man that’s spent any measure of time in the NFL, whether on coaching staffs or on the personnel side, already knew Flores’ assertion that the league’s anti-Black hiring bias was real and that the Rooney Rule was a farce, for two months Flores was alone in his public accusations, the only name on his class-action suit.
On Thursday, he officially had others step up and join him. In a perfect world, it would have been more than two men, in this case Ray Horton and Steve Wilks, but the reality is that facing off against one of the biggest entertainment entities in this country, one that counts manipulating the optics to cover up the truth as a side hustle, is a scary prospect. Not everyone is cut out for it.
But much in the same way over 20 women with very similar stories alleging wrongdoing during massage appointments with Deshaun Watson make it impossible to believe there wasn’t some level of impropriety —we remind you again: no criminal charges is not the same as innocence, and the American justice system has a long history of dismissing women’s accusations of sexual violence — every name added to the Flores suit makes it that much harder for the NFL to say, as it initially did, that his claims are “without merit.”
And just in case one man’s story, or three men’s stories, weren’t enough for you, an unearthed 2020 interview with former Titans head coach Mike Mularkey on a small Steelers fan podcast has provided an incredible boost to support their allegations.
When the hosts asked what regrets Mularkey had from his coaching career, they were almost certainly expecting him to recall a bad decision he made during the over 25 years he wore a headset, perhaps in a playoff loss. What they got however was Mularkey being as honest about the reality of how team owners treat the Rooney Rule as we’ve ever heard a white coach state publicly — and even more, it clearly weighed on Mularkey that he knew he’d played an unintended role in it.
If Mularkey is willing to stand with these fellow coaches, that is true allyship. It’s putting skin in the game. True, Mularkey retired from coaching after the 2019 season, but he undoubtedly maintains relationships with people at all levels of the league, many of whom may turn their backs on him for being real about the league’s racist underbelly. The Titans already essentially called him a liar in their statement on Thursday, and who knows what other things may be said about him because he’s siding with the Black men and not the machine.
Horton and Wilks joining the suit, as well as Mularkey’s comments, are important. When Flores was alone, it was easy for the NFL to do what’s always done in cases like this: paint him as a bitter Black man, upset that he was fired by the Miami Dolphins, despite taking a team that had been a sherbet-colored sideshow of bad coaches, worse quarterbacks and sub-.500 results for nearly two decades to back-to-back winning seasons.
As soon as Flores was dismissed by the Dolphins, there was a statement from team owner Stephen Ross indicating that there’d been some sort of power struggle that led Ross to part ways with the coach that had made chicken salad out of 2019’s chicken spit of a roster, instead of anyone who had, you know, been in charge of putting that roster together. There were also reports that Flores had been difficult to work with.
Gee, what a surprise.
Flores wasn’t going to go quietly. He has seen what happens when Black head coaches in particular are fired — no matter if they had their team on an upward trajectory, organizations use media to paint them in a negative light, and they rarely get a second chance to prove everyone wrong. Flores had text messages from Bill Belichick indicating his scheduled interview with the New York Giants was a sham. A past incident with Denver Broncos brass that for him showed the team wasn’t really interested in hiring him. And there was a claim that Ross had tried to bribe him into losing that first season in Miami and Flores refused. Ross has denied the allegation.
Flores couldn’t sleep at night. So even as he was making the rounds and interviewing with other teams, he filed his suit. Now he has at least two others standing beside him.
When the Freedom Riders were beaten and had their buses torched, it wasn’t just the Black riders who were on the receiving end of the blows. When you do the right thing and side with the oppressed to help work for their freedom and equality, being part of the historically protected group doesn’t exempt you.
Recent moves by the NFL, like the mandatory hiring of an offensive assistant from a marginalized group, show that the league (or at least Roger Goodell) know they have to do something in response to the Flores suit.
Field paint and helmet stickers were always a gimmick. The Rooney Rule has been a farce, especially once it became clear that Goodell wasn’t actually going to punish teams that clearly violated it.
But on Thursday, it got even harder for the league to pretend this isn’t what it really is — a justified, long-overdue suit exposing the NFL’s history of employment discrimination — and that it will all go away with a couple of low-level coaching hires and halftime commercials highlighting America’s persistent racial inequities in other areas.
The inequity is with them. And more men are willing to stand up and speak that truth.