To Brian Flores, Steve Wilks and Ray Horton:
Stay strong. Please stay strong.
On Thursday, as part of documents submitted in the Flores class-action lawsuit against the league alleging racial discrimination, the NFL and the individual teams named in the lawsuit expressed their intention to file a motion to compel arbitration or alternatively, a motion to have the case dismissed entirely on the grounds that it is “without merit.”
It’s to be expected that the league and teams would go this route because the last thing they want is for even a little bit of the truth to come out about the NFL’s bigoted hiring practices. They would much prefer internal arbitration, decided by commissioner Roger Goodell or someone he designates, and done completely in secret.
The fact that Flores filed his suit was a stunning yet long overdue move to try to rectify a broken system that allows the ownership class to do little more than pay lip service to its oft-amended Rooney Rule. The bold move indicated that Flores was built for this type of battle.
But after speaking with Flores briefly at a symposium in New York last month, my belief in his resolve was strengthened. He will not be easily broken by the league, will not be bought off, so all of this can go away for the NFL and it can get back to letting Black men batter their bodies and brains for the profits of the team owner class (and then tell them after the fact that their brains weren’t worth much anyway), while deeply disbelieving that Black men can be great leaders or top decision-makers.
Facing down an entity like the NFL isn’t easy. It has endless amounts of money and numerous media members willing to parrot whatever they’re told about Flores, Wilks and Horton, and enough fans who believe you should shut up and be grateful you were “given” anything, that you were “allowed” to earn more money than the average American.
The league can get plenty of help painting these coaches as bitter or angry instead of what they truly are: men of principle who have dedicated their entire adult lives to coaching, only to realize that no matter how good they were at their jobs, they ‘ d never get a fair shake because of the color of their skin.
Or even if they did become that increasingly rare Black man hired to be an NFL head coach, as Flores was, but was allegedly offered money if his team was terrible. It’s money that could never remove the loser stigma, one that would follow after the inevitable firing – for losing too much – a stigma that would prevent a second chance at the brass ring.
Principles and knowing you’re right don’t make it any easier.
Please stay strong.
Remember Clarence Shelmon. He was an NFL assistant coach for a little more than 20 years, rising to offensive coordinator for the Chargers from 2007-2011. He led a group that was top-five in scoring each year he was there. But in 2012, after not getting even one head coaching interview despite his group’s success, he walked away from the league and coaching.
“It’s emasculating. It’s devastating,” Shelmon told NFL Network’s Jim Trotter. “You work tremendous hours and you produce, then you see guys come into the game that have coached three years or they’re sons of somebody else, and next thing you know, they’re a head coach and you’re not. You ‘ve been busting your ass all these years and you can’t even get an interview. It really plays with your mind. You realize that you really don’t have a chance. It’s almost paralyzing. “
Remember Sherman Lewis? Way back in 1997 it was clear to some that Lewis wasn’t getting a fair shake. He was the Green Bay Packers’ offensive coordinator, was well-versed in the West Coast offense, was beloved by the players he coached. Despite his résumé, when the San Francisco 49ers needed a head coach, they hired Steve Mariucci, who wasn’t nearly as experienced in the NFL as Lewis.
Think of Lewis as the 1990s version of the Chiefs’ Eric Bieniemy. On paper, he was everything team owners and GMs say they’re looking for, but mysteriously (hint: both Lewis and Bieniemy are Black), Lewis never got a chance to be a head coach and Bieniemy hasn’t yet.
I hope Flores considers young Black coaches he probably doesn’t met or won’t meet, coaches who despite decades of evidence still hold onto the hope that things will be different for them, that they will get legitimate interviews, that they will be valued for their achievement and seen as the bright teachers and great motivators they are, and that there will be teams rushing to hire them for those traits, not deigning to interview them to check a box because they’ve already promised the job to someone else.
Now the NFL is trying to force them to bend to its will in the legal process. Filing this lawsuit has undoubtedly already brought difficulties Flores anticipated, but still has to weather them, now alongside Wilks and Horton. They knew it wouldn’t be easy, but they found the strength to do it anyway.
I hope that continues.