Four months before the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals qualified for next Sunday’s Super Bowl LVI in California, the half-time show was announced and the hype began.
The prospect of Dr. Dre, Kendrick Lamar, Mary J Blige, Snoop Dogg and Eminem performing together led many to dub the line-up the Mount Rushmore of hip-hop. On a night when the entire nation stops to watch, acknowledging rap's rich history seemed a symbolic gesture in racially troubled times in America. As if. The NFL has way too many serious issues that can't be conveniently glossed over with a greatest hits medley.
Last week, Brian Flores, recently fired by the Miami Dolphins, filed a lawsuit against three clubs, alleging racial discrimination in hiring practices. If that was the instant headline, the detail in the 58-page document was damning, a forensic expose of what life is really like for a black coach in the league, cataloguing the ignominy regularly heaped upon them when applying for jobs.
Regardless of what happens in court, Flores's brave decision to reveal the contents of messages exchanged with the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick blew the lid off the ugly reality of the sport.
In a January text conversation, Belichick, his former boss, mistakenly told Flores that he'd heard for certain from the New York Giants that they were naming Brian Daboll as their new head coach. Which was news to Flores because he was scheduled to do an in-person interview with the Giants for that very gig three days later.
A black candidate often needs to be near enough flawless to get a shot at a top job while too many white peers can get away with being merely half-decent
He still turned up for the sham audition even though he knew they were merely using him to fulfil the terms of the Rooney Rule requiring teams to interview minority candidates for positions. Then he took the nuclear option, bringing that information and reams of other evidence to lawyers knowing it would most likely cost the 40-year-old his own career.
“If I never coach again but there’s a significant change, it’ll be worth it,” said Flores. “I knew that it was a sacrifice that I was making but I also felt like it was necessary. This isn’t about me. This is about something that’s bigger than me, which is a system in the NFL that, in my opinion, is broken as far as hiring practices for black and minority coaches.”
An estimated 70 per cent of NFL players on any given Sunday are black yet just two of the 32 clubs have head coaches with skin that colour. In 2022, seven teams have never had a black head coach. Never. The numbers have been like that for too long and Flores’s experience tallies with that of plenty others like him through the years.
Aside from the embarrassment of participating in token interviews, there appears to be a double standard in operation. A black candidate often needs to be near enough flawless to get a shot at a top job while too many white peers can get away with being merely half-decent. And some of those get repeated attempts to prove themselves even after failing to deliver.
A privilege denied to their black peers. Flores was sacked by the Dolphins having just led them to their first back-to-back winning seasons in 20 years.
"Part of the problem may be the rampant nepotism throughout the coaching ranks," wrote Dan Spinelli for Mother Jones. "Nearly 15 per cent of NFL coaches are related to a current or former coach according to analysis by the website Defector. The Defector report cited NFL data showing that more than 25 per cent of head coaches are the 'son or father of a current or former NFL coach (including co-ordinators and position coaches).'
“You should know you have a problem when there are more NFL head coaches named ‘Matt’ (three) than there are black head coaches.”
Within hours of Flores filing suit, the NFL issued a statement vehemently denying the charges, declaring his claims were without merit. Yet, in a memo to clubs a few days later, Roger Goodell, commissioner of the sport, admitted the league had not done enough to promote diversity, especially among head coaches, and was re-examining all recruitment policies.
A cynic might argue he changed tack because he realised he had a photo opportunity with Dre and Snoop coming up on his schedule.
Or maybe he figured he needed to be more honest since his is the league that, just last year, was caught using race-norming when evaluating the right of brain-damaged former players to be properly compensated in a concussion settlement.
The same institution that in 2019 had to pay Colin Kaepernick millions of dollars because of the way clubs conspired to keep him out of the league because of his political protesting. The very NFL where Jon Gruden, one of its highest-profile coaches, resigned from the Las Vegas Raiders earlier this season after being caught using racist language in emails.
Goodell caught a break this week when the Dolphins replaced Flores with Mike McDaniel, who identifies as bi-racial, and the Houston Texans gave Lovie Smith their top job. Appointments that will allow naysayers to claim allegations of racial prejudice in hiring are exaggerated.
History says otherwise. Fifteen years have passed since Smith was the first African American head coach to lead a team to the Super Bowl. Later the same day, Tony Dungy became the second. Many considered that a seismic moment, a sign of genuine progress. Turns out it was neither.