Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 3, 2022

Finally, A Sports Debate With One Right Answer

It has been a very busy week for fans of the National Football League. An aging quarterback finally threw in the towel after twice failing to beat Eli Manning and the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. Or so a Gotham media outlet, tongue firmly in cheek, cast Tom Brady’s decision to retire at age 44, after a season in which the seven-time Super Bowl champion put up numbers that utterly belied his advanced years. Taking a higher road, one sportswriter used the occasion to posit a ranking of the so-called GOATs (Greatest of All Time) across the major American sports. The scribe placed Brady second, behind Babe Ruth but ahead of Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan, his tweet constituting the latest volley in what is an excellent example of a classic debate among sports fans. To qualify, an issue must generate strong opinions and heated arguments while remaining utterly unprovable and essentially meaningless.

In Washington, fans of the local franchise were busy engaging in another textbook example of a sports debate, since the local franchise finally ended a rebranding process that ran even longer than Brady’s announcement with the news that the team would henceforth be called the Commanders. Changing a team name, as Washington has just done and as Cleveland’s MLB team did last year, is guaranteed to provoke fierce debate. Even deciding to not do so, like the Los Angeles Rams have done three times, first when the team moved from its original Cleveland home to L.A. shortly after the end of World War II, then when it relocated to St. Louis in 1995, and finally when it returned to southern California in 2016, can be a fraught exercise. No matter how much money is spent on research and focus groups, the eventual decision is bound to be panned by many of a team’s faithful. Juliet obviously wasn’t wearing logoed apparel from head to toe when she asked, “what’s in a name?”

But by far the most important news, and assuredly not the source of meaningless back-and-forth for either fans or the NFL, came not from a player’s social media account nor a team’s headquarters, but from the U.S. Court for the Southern District of Manhattan. That is where attorneys for Brian Flores, the former head coach of the Miami Dolphins, filed suit against the league and all its franchises, with the Giants, Dolphins and Denver Broncos named specifically, alleging persistent and systemic discrimination in hiring practices.

The demographics of the NFL are well known. Seventy percent of the players but none of the owners are Black, though the league cites Jacksonville’s Shahid Khan, a Pakistani-American, as proof of diversity in its ownership ranks. Among head coaches, with a handful of vacancies to be filled, the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin is the sole African-American. The Commanders’ Ron Rivera, who is Hispanic, and the Jets’ Robert Saleh, who is of Lebanese descent, are the only other non-white head coaches.

In his lawsuit, Flores asserts that he has been subjected to multiple sham interviews with clubs looking to comply with the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires interviews with minority candidates as part of the hiring process for head coaching and senior front office jobs. The filing starts with text messages from an apparently confused Belichick, on whose staff Flores served for a decade, congratulating “Brian” on being the choice of the Giants for that franchise’s vacant head coaching position. The text exchange occurred four days before Flores was scheduled to be the only minority candidate to interview for the post, but after Brian Daboll, now the recently announced New York coach but then the Buffalo Bills’ offensive coordinator and another Belichick protégé, had met with the Giants’ hierarchy. Flores also cites a 2019 interview in Denver, when the Broncos’ front office leadership showed up an hour late and clearly hungover, with little interest in conducting a serious interview.

The lawsuit’s allegations touch multiple incendiary issues, for Flores also asserts that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross offered him $100,000 for every game he lost during his first season as head coach, in order to improve Miami’s draft position, and he also states that Ross tried to engineer a meeting between Flores and Brady when the quarterback was a potential free agent, in violation of the NFL’s strictures against tampering. After rebuffing Ross on both issues, Flores states he found himself labeled as uncooperative and difficult to work with, leading to his firing even after Miami rebounded from an injury-riddled start to this season to contend for a playoff spot until the final week of the schedule.

News of the litigation was soon followed by the expected denials from the various named parties, with the familiar ritualistic assurances of a vigorous defense to be mounted against baseless charges. But the league’s priorities were made plain by subsequent reports that the NFL planned to investigate the claims that Miami’s ownership was willing to pay for losses – Ross himself publicly pledged to cooperate with the investigation. In a contrast that could not be more stark, the league has shown absolutely no interest in examining its hiring practices.

Flores garnered public support from some current and former minority head coaches, including Rivera, Marvin Lewis, and Hue Jackson, and his efforts won off-the-record praise from many more assistants and coordinators gathered in Mobile, Alabama, to watch potential members of this spring’s NFL Draft class get ready for the Senior Bowl. That they chose to do so anonymously is not surprising, because the legal mountain that Flores faces is steep. Absent some supremely ill-advised “smoking gun” email turning up in discovery, he’ll be trying to prove the intent of defendants who are guaranteed to say that of course they take Rooney Rule interviews seriously, while lamenting the mystifying happenstance that has Tomlin standing alone in the league’s coaching ranks.

Given that reality, it is worth recalling that half a century ago, Curt Flood lost his lawsuit challenging Major League Baseball’s reserve clause. Yet since that defeat, not just baseball but all professional sports have never been the same. Now the sport is different and the oppression more targeted, but in the numbers that speak so loudly, and in the ever so quiet not-for-attribution affirmations by others whose experiences mirror those Flores has made public, the NFL’s systemic problem has been laid bare. That Brian Flores would dare strip away the league’s carefully cultivated veneer, at the virtually certain cost of his future as an NFL coach, is a courageous and selfless act.

From Dr. King to President Obama, leaders of the endless struggle have reminded us that while the arc of history is long, it bends toward justice. But the truth is that in sports, as in life, most days that favorable angle to a distant future is very, very hard to discern. Then there are times like this week, and heroes like Brian Flores, when the arc, however grudgingly, bends.

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