Twice As Good: The Issues With The NFL.
"At the end of the day...we need change."
Now that the 2021 NFL season has officially come to a close, it's time to have a conversation about a lot of the issues in the league that sports fans love, and most of those issues stem from race. The NFL isn't new to these allegations of having racist undertones, or people in power who both blatantly and behind closed doors hold racist sentiments. They aren't just allegations in my eyes, as well as in the eyes of many others who've both watched the game and been a part of NFL organizations over the years. The blackballing of Colin Kaepernick was the most recent blatant showing of these sentiments until Brian Flores' racial discrimination case has seemed to have given even more evidence to hold against the league.
Flores began his NFL career in 2004 with the New England Patriots, working his way up from a scouting assistant all the way to calling the defensive plays during the 2018 season. In 2019, he became the head coach of the Miami Dolphins, and while the team went 5-11 in his first season, he had back to back winning seasons in 2020 and 2021, goin 10-6 and 9-8 respectively. before being fired after the conclusion of the 2021 season. His firing was an odd one, as he was coming off of two winning seasons, and despite a bad start to the 2021 season in particular, his team was in the playoff hunt toward the end of the year. This firing and the subsequent interview processes for other head coaching vacancies would lead to his lawsuit against the NFL, Miami Dolphins, Denver Broncos and the New York Giants for racial discrimination in hiring practices. This case is very interesting, in the fact that we have pretty concrete evidence in my opinion that there is collusion going on behind closed doors in the NFL. This information isn't groundbreaking in any sense, as most black people who watch the game and pay attention to the ins and outs are pretty familiar with the way the league treats our people. Nonetheless, it is important because with concrete evidence like this, the sports world will have to listen. The NFL has a lot of issues, and the problems that come from the league are going to be discussed.
Brian Flores would do an interview with ESPN's Get Up on February 2nd, in order to elaborate on all of his accusations and statements in his 58-page lawsuit, and here's a quote from the interview:
"That was a conversation about not doing as much as we needed to do in order to win football games. Take a flight, go on vacation, I'll give you $100,000 per loss -- those are just his exact words. Look, I deal in truth, and I've said that to the players as well. I'm gonna give you good news, bad news... but it's gonna be the truth, it's gonna be honest. [...] To disrespect the game that way...you know, trust was lost, and there were certainly some strained relationships, and ultimately, I think that was to my demise in Miami."
The NFL responded almost immediately to the lawsuit, with a statement defending themselves against the discrimination claims:
"The NFL and our clubs are deeply committed to ensuring equitable employment practices and continue to make process in providing equitable opportunities throughout our organizations. Diversity is core to everything we do, and there are few issues on which our clubs and our internal leadership team spend more time. We will defend against these claims, which are without merit."
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross also responded to Flores with a statement:
"With regards to the allegations being made by Brian Flores, I am a man of honor and integrity and cannot let them stand without responding. I take great personal exception to these malicious attacks, and the truth must be known. His allegations are false, malicious and defamatory. We understand there are media reports stating that the NFL intends to investigate his claims, and we will cooperate fully. I welcome that investigation and I am eager to defend my personal integrity, and the integrity and values of the entire Miami Dolphins organization, from these baseless, unfair and disparaging claims."
These are strong statements given the evidence from both Flores and offseason's in the past during which qualified black coaches weren't given head coaching jobs. I can even keep it current and give just a brief example with the Houston Texans (who have since hired Lovie Smith, a black head coach, after the allegations were brought up by Flores). Before these allegations rose up against the league, the frontrunner for the Texans' head coaching position was Josh McCown. For those who don't know who that is, he was an average quarterback who was a journeyman through the NFL, playing for 12 teams over the course of 17 years in the league. Now you may think to yourself that a quarterback with NFL experience is qualified, however, this man hasn't coached at the NFL level in any capacity and was being interviewed for an NFL head coaching job with his only coaching experience being coaching quarterbacks for his sons’ team at Myers Park High School the past two years. With qualified people like Flores, Eric Bieniemy (Chiefs offensive coordinator), Byron Leftwich (Buccaneers offensive coordinator), and many others in the pool of potential head coaches, it makes absolutely no sense to bring in someone who's not qualified for the position in any way outside of having NFL connections in high places. Yes, networking is an important part of any field you decide to go into, but there should still be some sense of having the credentials or preparation for a position.
In regards to the offering of money, the $100,000 per loss wasn't the only time money was turned down, according to Flores. He also stated that he denied a non-disclosure agreement that would've paid him, but essentially silence him. The Dolphins responded with a quote in response to these claims as well:
"This latest assertion by Brian Flores that Steve Ross mentioned an NDA to him is categorically false," the team wrote. "This just did not happen and we simply cannot understand why Brian continues this pattern of making unfounded statements that he knows are untrue. We are fully cooperating with the NFL investigation and looking forward to all of the facts coming out which we are confident will prove that his claims are false and defamatory."
This response lines up with Stephen Ross' original statement, however, Flores' lawyers responded with screenshots of the agreement that Flores refused to sign (photos via @WigdorLaw on Twitter):
These aren't fabricated documents to my knowledge, as Brandon Shore is in fact the Senior Vice President of Football & Business Administration for the Miami Dolphins. This amount of evidence from Flores is great to see, as it's not necessarily Flores' word vs the word of the Dolphins, as things have been in the past in similar situations.
In regards to the $100,00 per loss, Flores is not the only one who claims to have been put in a situation to capitalize off of draft picks. Hue Jackson, who coached the Browns from 2016 to the middle of the 2018 season, added his experiences to the media storm when he explained that a 4 year plan was given to him, which didn't include any mention winning football games until the third and fourth season (Jackson was fired in the middle of the third season after a 2-5-1 record). I embedded the first part of his interview with ESPN, and there should be a second part on the Youtube page as well, that gives a little more detail:
Tanking isn't a new thing in professional sports leagues, but that doesn't make it right in any sense. For teams to lose intentionally or bribe coaches to lose and win in later seasons isn't honest to the sports that we love. Clearly it didn't work out for Hue Jackson, who not only was given a stripped roster, but wasn't even allowed the time to build a team his way, thus becoming a laughing stock of the league while in arbitration for similar allegations against the Browns, which he lost. In the second part of his interview with ESPN, Jackson made this statement when asked if he would join the lawsuit:
"If that's what needs to happen, I'm not afraid to stand behind Brian when it comes to anything, because I know what our men go through. And I don't want this for the men that come behind me, at all. I'm not interested in it, I think its unfair, and I think its wrong. You know everybody talks about doing right, the thing that's interesting to me is that they want to talk about everything but what's right."
According to the law, in 18 U.S. Code § 224, the following is said about bribery in sporting contests (via Cornell Law School):
Whoever carries into effect, attempts to carry into effect, or conspires with any other person to carry into effect any scheme in commerce to influence, in any way, by bribery any sporting contest, with knowledge that the purpose of such scheme is to influence by bribery that contest, shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.
Based on this law that was put into effect in 1964, the offering of money in order to tank for better draft picks would be illegal in my opinion. At the very least, Ross would lose the Miami Dolphins entirely, and the integrity of the NFL as a whole would be called into question as a lot of games would need to be looked at closer. While the NFL immediately denied the allegations of discriminations in its hiring practices, they do plan to investigate the claims made by Flores in regards to being offered money to lose games.
As seen with Hue Jackson, losing games doesn't help your case at all, but even winning black coaches get similar treatment, and a rule was put into place to protect them. This rule has been in place for almost two decades, so there should be some change by now, right?
The Rooney Rule
The NFL adopted the Rooney Rule in 2003, in order to give minority coaches (notably black coaches) a fair shot at being hired for head coaching jobs. The rule was created as a result of the firing of both Tony Dungy and Dennis Green in after the conclusion of the 2001 season, as Dungy was a winning coach (his team would be lead by Jon Gruden to win Super Bowl 37 against the Oakland Raiders the following year), while Green had his first losing season in a decade. The controversy led to Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri to release a study that showed black coaches were fired more often and hired less often despite winning more games than their white peers, threatening to sue. The NFL quickly acted and made sure that a minority coach would have to be interviewed by teams looking for a new head coach, and the rule was expanded in 2009 to general manager and other executive positions in any NFL organization.
Despite the Rooney Rule being in effect for the past 18 years, today there are two black head coaches in the NFL: Love Smith (newly hired by the Houston Texans) and Mike Tomlin. Tomlin has been the head coach of the Steelers since 2007, anever having a losing record in those 15 seasons. The amount of black head coaches in 2002 you may ask...just three, including the two that were fired. Not much has changed since then, it's become worse in some ways. Brian Flores has a very strong case for the Rooney Rule being used as a smoke screen for organizations to hire the white coaches that they planned to before any type of interviewing process took place. The evidence I mentioned earlier when it comes to his case is as follows: Bill Belichick, the head coach of the New England Patriots, texted Brian Flores congratulating him about getting hired for the head coaching job of the New York Giants...3 days before he was set to interview with the team.
These text messages are pretty clear, and while Belichick may not have meant any harm, the things that go on behind the scenes in the majority of NFL organizations can be seen here. The Giants had their guy in mind long before Flores was set to interview, which shows his interview to be nothing but a check to mark off the Rooney Rule box in their interviewing process, despite Flores' top of the line qualifications as a coach. Still going to the interview is a good look for Flores as well, because the league can't have a comeback saying that he declined to interview or didn't show up on his end of the process in order to land a job.
Following the initial whirlwind that came with the announcement of Flores' lawsuit against the NFL, he has continued to add on to his case. Flores alleged that not only were the interviews set up with him to simply satisfy the Rooney Rule, but he also called out the Dolphins organization for offering him $100,000 per loss by owner Stephen Ross during the 2019 season, in an attempt to strengthen the value of the Dolphins' draft pick the next year. Flores spoke out during an interview with ESPN's Get Up:
"That was a conversation about not doing as much as we needed to do in order to win football games. 'Take a flight, go on vacation, I'll give you $100,000 per loss'... those are just his exact words. Look, I deal in truth, I tell the players this, as well. I'm gonna give you good news, bad news -- but it's going to be honest. [...] To disrespect the game that way...trust was lost, and there were certainly some strained relationships, and ultimately, I think that was my demise in Miami."
A lack of trust between the front office and Flores definitely led to the end of his tenure, despite being on the right track to eventually making a playoff berth. This is the second time in recent memory that someone with a great track record has become controversial for taking a stand against the powers that be, though Flores' stand is a lot more direct toward the league itself.
Blackballing Colin Kaepernick
The behind the scenes of the NFL aren't new, as Colin Kaepernick has shown us over the past six years. In 2016, he decided to sit down during the national anthem for the first time on August 26th. The gesture immediately became a controversial one, and the 49ers put out a statement the next day that read as follows: "The national anthem is and always will be a special part of the pre-game ceremony. It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens. In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem."
The NFL's statement read a little bit differently though: "Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the national anthem."
The different tones of these two statements are clear, and the NFL has its history as to why it gave their statement. Prior to 2009, the NFL didn't air the national anthem unless it was the Super Bowl or after 9/11. For example, I will provide links to two different games, before and after 2009. The first game is the 2002 AFC Championship game between the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans, while the second game is the 2015 AFC Championship game between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots. (Watch the first minute of the 2002 AFC Championship video, and watch through to 8:15 for the 2015 AFC Championship video)
2002 AFC Championship: https://youtu.be/m8DjiZptUBU
2015 AFC Championship: https://youtu.be/wSis4QwAGt4?t=349
It should also be noted that in 2012, paid patriotic displays in sports became funded by the Department of Defense. In a joint oversight report by Sen. McCain and Sen. Flake from 2015, professional sports' displays of patriotism being funded by the government became a fact. In the report, 122 contracts were analyzed, and 72 of these contracts showed that the Department of Defense paid for patriotic displays in not just the NFL, but in professional basketball, baseball, hockey and soccer as well. A quote from the report reads as follows:
"Displays of paid patriotism are included within the $6.8 million that the Department of Defense has spent on sports marketing contracts since fiscal year 2012,”
With those facts in the open, back to Colin Kaepernick. After seeing Kaepernick sitting down during the anthem, a former member of the Seattle Seahawks and Green Beret Nate Boyer decided to reach out through an open letter to the quarterback, showing his support. Boyer and Kaepernick eventually met in person, and the two agreed to changing his method of protest from sitting to kneeling during the national anthem, out of respect. The military fights for the freedom of expression and freedom of protest, so this member of the military showing his support in a respectful manner and coming to a very understandable and agreeable conclusion should've been what a certain group of people needed to see in order to. not take issue with Kaepernick's stances. However, this was not the case.
When the league's 2016 season kicked off on 9/11, a lot more player joined Colin Kaepernick with anthem protests, and to. didn't go over well with the large racist demographic of NFL fans. The outcries about veterans (who showed Kaepernick the most support and clearly came up with the form of protest he decided to display) as well as the "lack of respect for the country" overshadowed the entire reason why he decided to kneel in the first place, which he explained very clearly were about inequality in the United States when it comes to the treatment of black people:
After the 2016 season, the San Francisco 49ers and Colin Kaepernick parted ways when Kaep decided to opt out of his contract before being cut from the team. He hasn't been on an NFL roster in any form since.
The blackballing of Colin Kaepernick after his unnecessarily controversial 2016 season is one of the most blatant we've seen in recent memory. He wasn't a bad quarterback by any means during the 2016 season, posting a 90.7 QBR despite the team having a 2-10 record in the 12 games he started that year. Kaepernick also led the 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance in 2012, but hasn't been on an NFL roster in the past six years.
The NFL would issue a new rule, which was against players protesting during the national anthem, giving the option for players to stay in the locker room instead of protesting on the field. Roger Goodell, Commissioner of the NFL gave this quote:
“We want people to be respectful to the national anthem. We want people to stand. That’s all personnel, and make sure they treat this moment in a respectful fashion. That’s something we think we owe. We have been very sensitive in making sure we give players choices, but we do believe that that moment is important and one we are going to focus on.”
Players would not be disciplined for protesting during the anthem in spite of this new policy, but the policy shouldn't have been put into effect in the first place. Kaepernick would also have his name edited out of the Madden 19 soundtrack during Big Sean's verse on YG"s "Big Bank", and fans noticed very quickly. His name was eventually put back, but the damage was done.
Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid filed grievances against the NFL for collusion, and they reached a settlement in the case on February 15th, 2019. it was reported by the Wall Street journal that the amount in the settlement was below $10 million, but the settlement had a non-disclosure agreement involved, so there's not much backing to the report. Here's a joint statement from the NFL and attorney Mark Geragos:
"For the past several months, counsel for Mr. Kaepernick and Mr. Reid have engaged in an ongoing dialogue with representatives of the NFL. As a result of those discussions, the parties have decided to resolve the pending grievances. The resolution of this matter is subject to a confidentiality agreement so there will be no further comment by any party."
Some people side-eyed Kaepernick and Reid for taking a settlement deal, but the damage by the NFL had already been done. The league showed its true colors on a national stage in the modern era that we hadn't seen before. Most black people you talk to know the league views us differently despite us keeping the lights on, but now it was blatant and in almost every headline for the world to see. Kaepernick taking a settlement pays for the years he should've been an NFL starter (you truthfully couldn't name 32 quarterbacks better than Kaep from 2017-2019), and the NFL being mostly a "young man's game" ruled Kaepernick out of a true return after a hiatus of 3 years, with him going from age 29 to 32. He's currently 34 and this is usually the tail end of most players' careers. The league knew what they were doing, and they paid for it.
In 2020, Kaepernick was finally proven right when the NFL admitted they were wrong when not listening to players during the 2016 season through a statement from Goodell via video after backlash came from Kaepernick and other star players when the league tried to give a statement on the murder of George Floyd and the protests that a ensued through the spring and summer. While Kaepernick still hasn't gotten a spot back on an NFL roster, it looks like Brian Flores still has some people in the league in his corner, and truly understand that he's qualified to be a part of staff, whether or not he's overqualified for the position that he's now in.
Usually a lawsuit against the league means that you won't be a part of it anymore, as Colin Kaepernick learned. However, Brian Flores was recently hired by the Pittsburgh Steelers to be the Senior Defensive Assistant and Linebackers coach, a position that he's overqualified for, but happy to receive. Seeing Mike Tomlin and the Steelers hire Flores showed me that black men need to stick together (as did Hue Jackson's supportive sentiments), as well as the fact that organizations that have historically stood for change based on simple football knowledge and respect for all, are continuing to do so. The Steelers late owner, Art Rooney, is what the Rooney Rule is named for, though the results aren't anywhere near where they should be. The Raiders have always been a leader in the NFL when it comes to change as well, hiring Art Shell to become the first black NFL head coach in the modern era, and also having Hue Jackson as their head coach during the 2011 season, the year of Davis' passing. Flores will continue with his lawsuit despite getting a job, showing that this isn't about money, its about what's right, and the future for black head coaches in the league.
Another positive that can come of this is the youth in today's NFL, my generation, can truly see and understand the type of respect that the league they make the vast majority of (around 70%) shows them. They can do with that information what they want, however, they can't act clueless to the ways of the NFL with this happening before their eyes. When Kaepernick was treated unfairly, some players spoke out, while others were complacent and/or selfish, focused on their individual futures and/or money. I believe that there won't be any true progress until these black men in the NFL come to a collective agreement to look out for each other as a collective, not for themselves individually. The more that complacency runs rampant in the NFL, the longer it will take and harder it will be to get today's stars and coaches in the league the respect that they truly deserve.
As it stands, there have been 500 head coaches throughout the history of the NFL, and 24 of them have been black. With Love Smith being hired by the Texans, the current percentage of head coaches that have been black in the league's history would be at 6.3% (information via Indy Star). This terrible history is only showing us that the league can act like they truly care with rules set in place, but until there are true consequences put into place, there will be no change. NFL ownership as a whole needs to go through changes as well, as all but two teams are majority owned by white men. Two owners are people of color/minority, but none are black. Byron Allen, a multi-millionaire who made a fortune from TV network ownership, put in a bid to become the owner of the Denver Broncos. If successful, he would become the NFL's first and only black majority owner. Here's what Allen had to say about it:
"NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft came to me in November of 2019 and asked me to take a good look at buying an NFL team, and after serious consideration, I strongly believe I can effectuate positive changes throughout the league. And for that reason, I will be making a bid for the Denver Broncos."
This is a good thing to see, and if Allen is successful, could lead to other wealthy black people to put in bids for ownership of other teams. A great way to create change is by becoming the change yourself, and I am in full support of black ownership in the NFL, if done correctly of course. I don't want black owners to become the scapegoat the same way that black coaches do, and I hope that black owners get the most qualified black coaches as a part of their organizations, if black NFL ownership becomes a reality. The future of the NFL is at a crossroads, they will either continue down the same road they always have, or things will begin to show change somewhere besides being painted onto an end-zone or a helmet.
Black men have been wronged in the NFL for too long, and they are tired of being twice as good with nothing to show for it.