Why Brian Flores will never coach in the NFL again

February 8, 2022, 7:36 PM UTC

Something former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores recently said struck a painful chord with me. “If there’s significant change…If I never coach again but there’s a significant change, it’ll be worth it.”

If I never coach again. Flores knows he’s in for a bumpy ride. 

To recap, Flores was abruptly fired from his coaching position, ending an impressive run with two seasons remaining on his contract. In response, he filed a 58-page class action lawsuit which claims, in part, that he is the victim of racial discrimination, citing “sham” hiring and interview protocols that allowed league officials to do end runs around the requirement to have diverse slates of candidates for important positions. In his case was the particularly embarrassing revelation via an errant text exchange with New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick that a white coach had secretly been selected to lead the New York Giants, a job that Flores had been tapped to interview for.

Flores knows he’s in for a bumpy ride because he understands the world in which he lives. 

The suit includes a detailed diversity report of the NFL, documenting the poor showing from a league that has a talent pool of former players that is 70% Black. It is also unflinching: “NFL remains rife with racism, particularly when it comes to the hiring and retention of Black Head Coaches, Coordinators and General Managers. Over the years, the NFL and its 32-member organizations (the ‘Teams’) have been given every chance to do the right thing. Rules have been implemented, promises made—but nothing has changed. In fact, the racial discrimination has only been made worse by the NFL’s disingenuous commitment to social equity.”

Flores understands that he operates in a world that made a diversity intervention necessary. 

Specifically, the Rooney Rule, the oft cited and copied 2003 mandate that requires diverse slates of candidates for key positions in the NFL. (More on the history of the rule here, and its popularity in corporate life here and here.) But tactics like these without a deep commitment to inclusion are doomed to fail, as the Rooney Rule clearly has. They become a box cynically checked by a small group of wealthy individuals with no skin in the justice game. Even if Flores’s claims are unproven, or no other football professionals join him in the action, the numbers speak for themselves: Out of 32 teams there is currently only one Black head coach: Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers

Flores also understands that he is not alone. Every Black person who decides to use the platform they have earned to highlight systemic racism does the same math. Reckonings come at a price.

But will it be worth it for Flores? All signs point to no.

Consider the 1619 Project, the award-winning collection of work that explores the role of chattel slavery as a foundational element in American history. Initially published by New York Times Magazine in 2019, it was turned into a book and companion pieces for educators. And in short order, it was called out by name in Republican-controlled legislatures across the country to be banned from use in public education: TexasArkansas, Iowa, MississippiOklahoma, Missouri

Now that wave has become a tsunami, and underpaid, overworked educators and librarians across the U.S. are facing down angry parents and school boards. They’re challenging a wide array of curriculum materials that deal with race or equity in any meaningful way. As a result, plenty of educators are leaving or have been let go. “Many of the ‘truths’ that Americans hold sacred regarding our nation’s history and its investments in liberty and prosperity are harder to sustain once a person takes seriously slavery and its legacies of anti-Black racism,” says Seth Rockman, an associate professor of history at Brown University, of the backlash against the 1619 Project.

Reckonings come at a price.

The backlash has never-ended for Nikole Hannah-Jones, the creator of the 1619 Project and winner of a Pulitzer Prize for the work. The “political firestorm” associated with the project cost her at least one job—as a tenured professor at her alma mater, the University of North Carolina, untold hours of anguish, and potential physical harm to her supporters.

The backlash hasn’t ended for Colin Kaepernick, either.

And it won’t end for Brian Flores, who, if history is a guide, will never coach in the NFL again.

“We didn’t have to file a lawsuit for the world to know there’s an issue. We need change. That was the No. 1 reason. I know there’s sacrifice, there’s risk to that, but at the end of the day, we need change,” Flores told ESPN. “I know many capable Black coaches who I know, when given an opportunity, will do a great job during their interview. This isn’t about me. It’s bigger than football. This is about equal opportunity for qualified Black candidates—not just in football but everywhere, in all industries.”

“My problem with all of this, once again, is that, again, we have another Black professional who has to risk his entire career to try to create some sort of change,” Howard Bryant of Meadowlark Media tells NPR about the Flores lawsuit. 

But Bryant could be talking about any Black professional at any time, who is doing the math in their heads right now.

What do I have to sacrifice to see change in the world?

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.

On Background

Hey! Whatever happened to the racist white people in those historical civil rights photos?  I’ve wondered this myself. Do those pictures of Uncle Jimmy smiling in the foreground of a lynching, or Cousin Thelma spitting at an integrating student, ever make it into a family album somewhere? Photographer and writer Johnny Silvercloud answers his own question by positing that after the passage of civil rights legislation, those old racists simply went silent, turning off the public spigot of their anger and indignation. Their ghosts pop up in odd ways, he says, like when a millionaire peacefully takes a knee in protest, or when a journalist points out the truth about slavery, or when... you get the point. “I highly doubt that the white faces in the first Civil Rights Era just automatically let go of their racist ideologies,” he writes. “White supremacy — racism in America — had to adapt, and it did.” (Disturbing photos ahead if you click through.)

What it means to be evicted  While we continue the tortured debate over why and how to help renters economically derailed by the pandemic, it’s worth looking into the history of how losing a home destroys the prospects of the financially vulnerable. In his book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Harvard social scientist and ethnographer Matthew Desmond, applies his research on the intersection of poverty, race and gender, to offer this wrenching analysis into how the loss of a home triggers a cascade of negative events for some, while others are enriched. His research focused on Milwaukee, a racially segregated city with a desperately high poverty rate. While his team drew from state-level data and court records, he also chose to live in a trailer park and city apartments for months, to better understand the lives of families living in poverty and how evictions impacted their lives. Desmond’s family lost their home when he was a kid; he brings a unique empathy to his inquiries about poverty, dignity and progress.

Architects of color weigh in on the unbearable whiteness of design  The 160th birthday of The American Institute of Architects seemed as good a time as any to do some soul-searching. Curbed asked 16 architects at various stages of their careers to talk candidly about the race-related challenges they’ve faced over their careers. They did not disappoint: “I never saw anything about work by Black architects or architecture about Black people unless it was traditional African architecture or the pyramids in Egypt. That's as far as it went,” said Mabel O. Wilson on the eurocentrism of the profession. Suchi Reddy, an immigrant from India, remembers the shock: “I never really knew what racism was until I came to this country. The first thing you overcome is the gender bias, and then the racial questions come.”

Mood board

If history is a guide, Nikole Hannah-Jones can rewrite and guide to her heart's content.
Kevin Winter—Getty Images for The Hollywood Reporter

This is the web version of raceAhead, Fortune’s daily newsletter on race, culture, and inclusive leadership. To get it delivered daily to your inbox, sign up here

Read More

CEO DailyCFO DailyBroadsheetData SheetTerm Sheet