The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Brian Flores experience? ‘That’s the reality for most Black coaches.’

Former Washington defensive backs coach Ray Horton, in 2019. Horton said he's been on sham interviews for head coaching jobs in the NFL. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
11 min

Nearly a decade ago, he boarded an overnight flight across the country and cinched on a necktie that matched the team’s colors. Ray Horton had been an NFL man most of his life, first as a player then as an assistant coach, winning Super Bowls as both.

Now, in 2013, the Arizona Cardinals’ defensive coordinator had been invited to interview for a job he knew he wouldn’t get. A team was flying him in to discuss its head coaching vacancy, and though Horton had been passed over before, he told himself maybe this time would be different. His résumé and preparation would overshadow the fact that NFL team owners almost always choose a White man to lead their teams.

“You know the anxiety you have, when you want it so bad?” says Horton, who is Black. “You want to put your best foot forward. You want to believe in the American Dream.”

He had researched the team’s billionaire owner, his family, the things that motivated and had enriched him. He brought iPads, packed with his strategy and vision for winning a Super Bowl, for everyone with whom he was scheduled to meet.

“You still have to prepare just as hard and knock it out of the park,” Horton says, “with zero chance of getting the job. That’s the reality for most Black coaches.”

Long before this past week, when former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores sued the NFL for discrimination and accused the league’s hiring practices of being “rife with racism,” the country’s most powerful and popular sport had an open secret. Its leadership, whether within the league office or the individuals who own and run the NFL’s 32 teams, looks vastly different from its majority-Black player workforce. That leadership has long shown limited urgency in correcting this imbalance. Now, just before a global audience turns its attention to the biggest week on the NFL calendar, Flores just said the quiet part out loud.

Former Dolphins coach Brian Flores sues NFL and its teams, alleging racial discrimination

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin is the league’s only Black head coach, and since the Oakland Raiders made Art Shell the first Black head coach in 1989, 141 White men have been hired to lead a team compared with 19 Black coaches. Of those, only nine Black men have gotten a second chance to lead a team. After the 2021 season, which concludes with this week’s Super Bowl, nine teams had head coaching vacancies. Six of those positions have been filled, all with White coaches.

“ … We must acknowledge that particularly with respect to head coaches the results have been unacceptable,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in a memo distributed to all teams Saturday. “We will reevaluate and examine all policies, guidelines and initiatives relating to diversity, equity and inclusion, including as they relate to gender.”

During a phone interview with The Washington Post before Flores filed his class-action complaint, Troy Vincent, the league’s executive vice president of football operations, said “there is a double standard” in the NFL for Black coaches being hired and retained. After all, Flores led Miami to consecutive winning seasons before being fired, Houston’s David Culley was let go after just one season, and the Black offensive coordinators for the past two Super Bowl champions are still waiting for their first head coaching jobs.

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

“People tend to hire people that look like them,” says Brian Levy, a longtime agent who represents many NFL coaches. None of the NFL’s majority owners are Black, and all but two are White. “They’re going to make decisions based upon people that remind them of someone that they know, remind them of themselves, remind them of someone in their family, people that they’ve done business with in the past. Which, when you continue to hire people that look like you, act like you, make the same decisions as you, you make mistakes.”

Flores’s suit is notable for many reasons, including the audacity of suing the league Flores has spent his entire career working for; technically, he’s still a candidate for the remaining openings. Even Flores, who at 40 is a young coach, has acknowledged the possibility that he will be blackballed after accusing Dolphins owner Stephen Ross of offering him $100,000 per loss to improve the team’s draft position. Flores’s suit also includes text messages he received from his former boss, New England Coach Bill Belichick, who mistakenly congratulated Flores for getting the New York Giants coaching job. The texts were apparently intended for Brian Daboll, another former New England assistant, suggesting the Giants planned to hire Daboll even before an interview Flores has since called a “sham.”

There’s also Flores’s timing: declaring war on a corporate behemoth immediately before the Super Bowl, when thousands of media members will have once-a-year access to league personalities and many radio and television hours to fill. Goodell, who holds an annual news conference days before the championship game, will be among those asked, time and again, about Flores’s allegations.

The NFL initially reacted to Flores’s lawsuit with a written statement saying that Flores’s claims of racial discrimination are “without merit.” However, the league will investigate the allegation that Ross offered money to the coach to tank games and encouraged Flores to tamper with another team’s quarterback, a person familiar with the situation said. Goodell said in his memo that the league will conduct a review of its diversity strategies and of the integrity of games in light of Flores’s allegations.

“While the legal process moves forward,” Goodell wrote, “we will not wait to reassess and modify our strategies to ensure that they are consistent with our values and longstanding commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.”

The teams specifically named in the lawsuit — the Dolphins, Giants and Denver Broncos — denied the allegations with increasing aggressiveness. After initial denials by the teams, Ross and Broncos executive John Elway followed up with statements calling Flores’s accusations “false” and “defamatory.” The Giants issued a detailed denial that included the itinerary of Flores’s interview for their coaching job.

Jenkins: NFL owners are committed to diversity — until it’s their turn to make a hire

But Hue Jackson, a former head coach in Oakland and Cleveland, initially suggested that Browns owner Jimmy Haslam offered incentives to lose games on purpose before backtracking. Jackson, who is reportedly considering joining Flores’s class-action suit, didn’t respond to text messages for this story, and other Black coaches declined interview requests by The Washington Post. Some said it’s because they feared retaliation.

“Flores is right. … S--- is not on equal playing field,” one current NFL assistant coach wrote in a text, though he declined to elaborate. “I don’t have millions in the bank to fall back on if I don’t have a job!”

Others pointed out that a racial divide exists even in the jobs that often serve as a launchpad for head coaches. In 2021, only six teams had a Black offensive coordinator. Two of those, Tampa Bay’s Byron Leftwich and Kansas City’s Eric Bieniemy, are highly qualified and widely considered as being ready to lead a team. Both have been passed over.

“Where are the Black quarterback coaches?” said Sherman Smith, a longtime NFL assistant coach who spent two seasons as Washington’s offensive coordinator. “I was trying not to make sense of it because it didn’t make much sense. The guys interviewing, particularly on offense, were all White guys.”

Horton retired from coaching after the 2019 season, but with a son who spent last season on the coaching staff at the University of Connecticut, he says he still feels uneasy discussing the NFL’s hiring practices. Still, Horton says he identified with much of what Flores outlined in his lawsuit.

“Basically, does it happen? Yeah,” he says. “I’m living proof.”

When Horton interviewed with the team, which he wouldn’t identify, in 2013, the franchise’s majority owner didn’t attend, he says. But someone asked a question on the owner’s behalf: Why did Horton, with his passionate sideline demeanor and cornrows, seem “really aggressive” during games?

“Well, how do you want your team to play?” Horton says he replied. Team representatives in the room agreed his answer and overall performance had been pitch-perfect, and Horton recalls one executive saying he hadn’t hit a home run. He had hit a grand slam, and his fire and communication skills were precisely what the team needed.

So imagine Horton’s surprise when, later that day, a friend with the team called Horton to say that a replacement coach, a White man, had been selected. Indeed the general manager later called to inform Horton that the team owner felt more comfortable with the other candidate.

“Now, what does ‘felt more comfortable’ mean?” Horton says. “I know what it meant to me.”

In the wake of Flores’s lawsuit, Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) called for a House subcommittee to hold a hearing on racism in the NFL. The league office has tried to address the NFL’s minority hiring with diversity measures, including expanding the Rooney Rule, named after the late Dan Rooney, who hired Tomlin in 2007, by requiring teams to interview at least two minority candidates for head coach, general manager and coordinator jobs. There were two Black GMs hired during this cycle, Ryan Poles by the Chicago Bears and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah by the Minnesota Vikings. That’s after three Black GMs were hired last year: Martin Mayhew by Washington, Brad Holmes by the Detroit Lions and Terry Fontenot by the Atlanta Falcons.

The league also enacted a rule last year that awards draft-choice compensation to a team that develops a minority candidate hired by another franchise as a head coach or GM. For this hiring cycle, it allowed teams with head coaching vacancies to interview candidates from other franchises during the final two weeks of the regular season.

Opinion: How the NFL fumbled the battle for equal opportunity in coaching

Horton, though, believes the Rooney Rule should be abolished. Nearly two decades after its adoption, he says, it hasn’t improved diversity so much as it leads to token interviews. Others have suggested penalizing teams that go multiple hiring cycles without selecting a minority candidate, extending the interviewing period by prohibiting teams from making hires before the Super Bowl or inviting coaches of color to attend owners meetings to establish relationships with the billionaires who may someday hire them — or not.

“There’s some owners, I don’t think they’ll ever hire a Black head coach,” says Smith, who retired from coaching after the 2017 season. “There’s a mind-set about it. That mind-set that a Black guy, Black men can’t do this. ‘I don’t want them to be the face of my team.’”

Horton says he interviewed for six head coaching jobs, spending hours on research, travel and the perfect suit. He never received an offer. He insists he feels neither anger nor lingering frustration, but he notices things such as Nick Sirianni getting hired in Philadelphia despite dressing casually to his interview, and he noticed how, in the past two weeks, four first-time coaches got a shot Horton never did.

Instead, he chooses to believe the NFL will properly address the lack of diversity among its coaching ranks, if only because Flores went nuclear. If nothing else, Horton says, he just hopes things are different by the time his son, Jarren, goes on his first head coaching interview.

“If you ask me is the NFL racist, I would say absolutely not. Now, if you ask me if they have a cognitive bias? Absolutely, 1,000 percent, they do,” Horton says. “Your record says yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, but you come back and you’re disappointed because the cards were stacked against you.”

He takes a breath and continues.

“My mind looks back, my mind-set goes: I would’ve led a team to a Super Bowl championship. I mean, that’s what I think,” he says. “I think about what could’ve been.”

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