Brian Flores’ discrimination case against the NFL can move to court
By Ken Belson and Jenny Vrentas
Brian Flores, who in a lawsuit accused the NFL and its teams of discriminating against him and other coaches of color in their hiring practices, can proceed with his case, a federal judge ruled earlier this week.
The ruling, by Judge Valerie E. Caproni of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, means that Flores can press his case through the judicial system rather than seeking a resolution in private arbitration, a process that is overseen by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
“This case shines an unflattering spotlight on the employment practices of National Football League teams,” Caproni wrote in a 30-page ruling released on Wednesday. “Although the clear majority of professional football players are Black, only a tiny percentage of coaches are Black.”
Flores, who is Black and of Honduran descent, filed suit in February 2022. In April of that year, two more Black coaches joined the filing, which they had argued should be certified as a class action. The judge ruled the claims brought by Ray Horton, a longtime assistant coach and defensive coordinator, and Steve Wilks, the Carolina Panthers’ interim coach last season, were subject to arbitration. The NFL had argued that the claims of all three coaches should be heard in arbitration.
Wednesday’s ruling was a significant victory for Flores because his claims against the league and the New York Giants, Denver Broncos and Houston Texans can proceed in federal court, where testimony and evidence regarding the league’s hiring practices may be made public.
Caproni ruled that a separate part of Flores’ case, against the Miami Dolphins, was governed by his employment agreement with the team and therefore should be heard by an arbitrator. Flores amassed a 24-25 record over three seasons as the Dolphins’ head coach before he was fired in 2022.
Doug Wigdor, a lawyer for Flores, said in a statement that he was pleased “that Coach Flores’ class claims of systematic discrimination against the NFL and several teams will proceed in court and ultimately before a jury of his peers.”
The two sides will meet on March 24 in a pretrial conference to come up with a schedule for litigation, including the parameters of evidence discovery.
Brian McCarthy, an NFL spokesman, said in a statement that the league recognizes there is more work to be done to improve its diversity and inclusion and is pleased with the court’s decision to send several of the claims to arbitration. “We intend to move forward promptly with arbitrations as directed by the court and will seek to dismiss the remaining claims,” he said.
Flores claimed that the head coach searches led by the Giants in 2022 and Broncos in 2019 were “shams” because team executives had already chosen the candidates they would hire — Brian Daboll and Vic Fangio, whom Denver fired after three seasons — and spoke to Flores only to comply with league rules requiring teams to interview candidates of color.
Flores added the Texans to his lawsuit last April, claiming that the team retaliated against him for filing the lawsuit by removing him from consideration for their open head coach position last year. The Texans job was filled by Lovie Smith, a Black coach, who had been the team’s defensive coordinator. He was fired after one year, becoming the second consecutive Black coach the team employed for just a single season.
The Giants declined to comment on the judge’s ruling Wednesday, but the team had previously called Flores’ claims “disturbing and simply false.” The Broncos and Texans did not respond to requests for comment.
In February 2022, just 18 days after he filed suit against the league, Flores was hired as a senior defensive assistant by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Last month, he was hired as defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings.
There are currently six head coaches of color in the league: Mike Tomlin of the Steelers; Todd Bowles of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; DeMeco Ryans of the Texans; Mike McDaniel of the Dolphins; Robert Saleh of the New York Jets; and Ron Rivera of the Washington Commanders. The number has not increased since last season. Ryans, who replaced Smith in Houston, was the only Black coach hired for any of the five open positions this winter.
The league has generally been successful at steering legal challenges into arbitration — where proceedings are private — because of the broad jurisdiction in the terms of employment for all players, coaches and other league personnel. But the league has settled cases in arbitration, including multimillion-dollar payments to former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his former teammate Eric Reid, Black players who filed a grievance claiming that they were blackballed because they knelt during the playing of the national anthem to protest racist policing.
Last year, a state court judge in Nevada ruled that the NFL could not compel former Raiders coach Jon Gruden into arbitration. Gruden had accused the league of leaking emails in which he shared racist, misogynist and homophobic comments, which led to his being fired by the team. In January, the Nevada State Supreme Court paused the case to give the NFL time to prepare an appeal.