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Ex-NFL head coach sues the league alleging racism in its hiring practices

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Two news events highlight pro football's struggle to represent a diverse country. The Washington football team has chosen its new name - the Washington Commanders. The original name was dropped back in 2020, though you still see cars in Washington, D.C., flying tattered old flags that carry it. ESPN's Kevin Blackistone recalls the team made this change after years of pressure.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: They didn't do it altruistically. They did it under economic pressure from FedEx, which is one of its huge sponsors and happens to have its name on the team's stadium.

INSKEEP: So that's one development. The other story is about a lawsuit. Former Miami Dolphins Head Coach Brian Flores sued the NFL and three teams - the Giants, the Dolphins and the Broncos - alleging racism in hiring and even a plot to deliberately lose games. Kevin Blackistone talked about that with Leila.

BLACKISTONE: Well, he's alleging overall discrimination by the league - in a league that, as of today, has one Black coach among its 32 coaches in the league. And this is a league that is 70% Black. And also Flores is pointing to the fact that he had a winning record the last two years with a very bad team in Miami. He's alleging that the owner for whom he played was trying to pay him to lose games because losing games in the NFL means that you get a higher draft pick come April. And that is a fast way to potentially improve a team - and that it was very difficult for him to do that in terms of his future in this league because obviously losing would be a stain on his resume and make it more difficult for him to get a job. So after three years, he's fired. He went home, did his homework and pointed out how this is a pattern in the NFL for many, many, many years and that he is the latest victim of it.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

I mean, that number you mentioned is just so stark - one Black head coach of 32. So put into context why this lawsuit is such a big deal.

BLACKISTONE: Well, it's such a big deal for one reason because about 20 years ago, the late, great attorney Johnnie Cochran and his law firm basically brought the same data to the NFL and said that they would sue on the behalf of Black men aspiring to be head coaches in this league unless the league could come up with some way to remedy its horrible hiring practices when it came to men of color. And Johnnie Cochran went into those meetings after having successfully sued huge Fortune 500 companies, like Coca-Cola...

FADEL: Right.

BLACKISTONE: ...With the exact same data. And so the league developed what became known as the Rooney Rule, which basically said that when there is an opening for a head coach - and since, that has been expanded to any top executives with the team - that the hiring managers be sure to bring someone of color into that interview process to make it more equitable and to, hopefully, rectify those horrible numbers. Well, one of the things that happened here in the case with Brian Flores is that he and another former assistant coach that he worked with under Bill Belichick by the name of Brian Daboll were both up for the same job at the New York Giants. And one day, a couple of days before Brian Flores is to interview for that job, he gets a text from Bill Belichick congratulating him for having won the job.

FADEL: Oh.

BLACKISTONE: There was some confusion in the texts from Bill Belichick. And finally, Bill Belichick and Brian Flores realize that Bill Belichick meant to congratulate Brian Daboll, and that Brian Flores was going into an interview that he had no chance of winning because it was already handed to...

FADEL: Wow.

BLACKISTONE: ...One of his former colleagues. So that, to him, proved that the Rooney Rule was no more than a ruse, and that this is something that has probably happened to dozens of Black men aspiring to be head coaches in the NFL.

FADEL: So Flores is taking his grievances to court. What does this mean for the NFL long term?

BLACKISTONE: Well, it's huge. The NFL hates to be in court. When it came to Colin Kaepernick, they reached a settlement. When it came to concussions, they reached a settlement. They don't like to go to discovery. In this particular lawsuit, which reads like a master's dissertation on discrimination employment, lays out so many facts that it's going to be difficult for them to clean it up, I think - and having talked to some lawyers - without winding up in court. So this is a huge, huge, huge stain on the league. And not only that, I should point out the other important part of Brian Flores' lawsuit is against Stephen Ross, his owner, where he claims that the owner tried to pay him to lose games, which, if true, is a fraud against the public, which could cost Ross his ownership of that team and certainly result in numerous lawsuits by fans against the Miami Dolphins, who thought that they were getting an honest event for their ticket purchase.

FADEL: ESPN panelist and Washington Post columnist Kevin Blackistone. Thanks so much, Kevin.

BLACKISTONE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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