The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brian Flores makes clear racism is the elephant in the NFL room

Former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores is suing the NFL and its teams, alleging racial discrimination. (Chris Unger/Photographer: Chris Unger/Getty)
6 min

A previous version of this article misnamed the Detroit Lions' former general manager. It is Bob Quinn. The article also stated the Lions had one tie over the past four seasons; they in fact had two.

Let the excuses begin. And the posturing. And the expressions of shock. Not to mention the anonymous quotes about why Brian Flores can’t possibly be out of work for reasons that involve the color of his skin.

“Whenever I bring up race, there are people who say, ‘Why are you always making race an issue?’ ” Tony Dungy said. “My answer is, ‘I’m not making race an issue — race is an issue.’ ”

It is the elephant in the room in sports and in our society. Dungy made that comment to me during my research for “Raise a Fist, Take a Knee,” the book I wrote about race in sports that was published in November. Dungy is hardly a jump-on-the-table-and-shout sort of guy, but he has seen enough racism in his life to know it when he sees it.

He saw it in high school when his football coach selected a White kid to be his co-captain over a Black kid who was clearly more qualified. He saw it as a coach when he didn’t get a single phone call in 1993, even though he was the coordinator for a very good Minnesota Vikings defense and there were five head coaching openings in the NFL.

Brian Flores’s allegations against NFL lead to call for congressional hearing

Things are different today. Dungy would have gotten a call this year if he had been a hot coordinator because of the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate when they have an opening for a head coach, a general manager or a coordinator. He would have gotten interviewed. That doesn’t mean he would have gotten a job.

Getting a head coaching job in the NFL is difficult; keeping a head coaching job is perhaps more difficult.

Dungy was fired by Tampa Bay after taking the Buccaneers to the playoffs four times in six seasons — including the last three in a row. The excuse was that his playoff record (2-4) wasn’t good enough. There was little mention of the 13 consecutive losing seasons the team had gone through before his arrival.

There is also the case of Lovie Smith, who was the first Black coach to take a team to the Super Bowl — the 2006 Chicago Bears. Smith got to the ultimate game with Rex Grossman as his quarterback. Six years later, after a 10-6 season, he walked into then-GM Phil Emery’s office expecting to discuss a contract extension. He walked out unemployed.

I know Phil Emery well. He is one of the most honorable men I’ve met in sports. There is little doubt he was acting on orders from the McCaskey family, the owners of the Bears. Smith was 81-63 in nine seasons. Since his firing, the Bears have gone 61-84, had one winning season and recently hired their fourth coach, Matt Eberflus. One headline in Chicago suggested Eberflus would bring back “Lovie style principles” to the Bears.

Which raises the question: Why not hire Lovie Smith again?

Brewer: Brian Flores is done pretending, and the NFL is losing control

There’s also the case of Jim Caldwell, who was 36-28 over four seasons in Detroit and took the Lions to the postseason twice. He had the best four-year record of any Lions coach since Buddy Parker in the 1950s. He was fired after a 9-7 season and replaced by Matt Patricia, a Bill Belichick assistant, who was hired by then-GM Bob Quinn — who had also worked for Belichick.

In four seasons since then, Patricia, interim coach Darrell Bevell and Dan Campbell have combined to go — wait for it — 17-46-2.

Which brings us to Flores. One of the charges Flores makes in his class-action lawsuit is that Miami owner Stephen Ross offered him $100,000 per loss to make sure the Dolphins lost enough in 2019 to get the first pick in the 2020 draft, an accusation Ross strongly denied. There were rumors that season that Dolphins management was trading away veterans in hopes of being bad enough to secure the top pick.

Ironically, the phrase used frequently was “Tanking for Tua” — as in Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. The Dolphins finished 5-11 and ended up picking fifth — where they took Tagovailoa, who dropped to that spot after being injured during his senior season.

The Dolphins went 10-6 a year later and then, after starting 1-7 this season while dealing with a slew of injuries, won seven straight games to get into the playoff picture before finishing 9-8, one game out of the postseason. The next day, Flores was fired.

Soon after came the stories: He disagreed often with General Manager Chris Grier — who is also Black, so the firing can’t be racial — and was tough to get along with at times.

Question: Does anybody out there think Belichick is easy to get along with? Bill Parcells? Don Shula?

Also, does anybody out there think NFL GMs have final say on head coaching decisions? Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti likes to say his general manager — Ozzie Newsome and, more recently, Eric DeCosta — should have final say on all football matters. Newsome always said he appreciated Bisciotti’s approach, “but if it’s something important, I take it to him first. It’s still his money.”

Flores was fired by Ross — there’s no doubt about that. Does anyone think if Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh — whom Ross, a Michigan guy, loves — had the same record as Flores and was, at times, “difficult to deal with,” he would have been fired?

The bottom line is this: The Rooney Rule was created with good intent, but now it is being used as a smokescreen for owners to claim they seriously considered a Black candidate. The Giants insisted Tuesday in the wake of Flores’s lawsuit that they “seriously considered” him until “the eleventh hour.” Except that Belichick, thinking he was texting Brian Daboll, congratulated him on getting the job three days before Flores interviewed.

Flores may well end up as a martyr, much like Colin Kaepernick and others who have spoken up in the past — Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and more.

But he may also be the kid in the crowd who had the guts to yell that the emperor had no clothes as everyone else gawked at his beautiful new clothes. He’s going to be attacked by a lot of people for speaking up.

I believe every word he’s saying. And I promise you I’m not alone.

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