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How the NFL Destroyed Its Own Ideal


If you wanted to write a feel-good movie about sports’ ability to empower the underdog, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better protagonist than NFL coach Brian Flores. A first-generation American born to Honduran parents in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood, Flores rose quickly through the NFL’s ranks, becoming an assistant coach under the legendary New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick at the prodigiously young age of 28. In 2019, he was named the head coach of the Miami Dolphins, becoming only the fourth Latino head coach in NFL history and the third active Black head coach in the league at the time.

Up to that point, Flores’ story practically writes itself. But unfortunately for Hollywood screenwriters, that’s not how it ends.

On Tuesday, three weeks after he was fired by the Miami Dolphins, Flores sued the NFL and three of its teams — the Denver Broncos, the New York Giants and the Miami Dolphins — alleging racial discrimination in their hiring practices. Flores’ allegations are almost as dramatic as his meteoric rise. In the 58-page suit, Flores alleges that Dolphins’ owner and global real estate billionaire Stephen Ross pressured him into “tanking” the team — or deliberately losing games in order to improve its draft picks — by offering him $100,000 for every game he lost during the 2019 season, an offer which he refused. Flores also alleges that during the winter of 2020, Ross tricked him into attending an illicit recruiting meeting on Ross’s private yacht with a prominent quarterback, in clear violation of the NFL’s recruiting rules. After Flores refused to participate in the meeting, he alleges in the suit, he was “treated with disdain and held out as someone who was noncompliant and difficult to work with,” ultimately leading to his firing.

The details of Flores’ allegations against the other two teams — the Giants and Broncos — are no less lurid. According to the suit, on Jan. 23, four days before Flores was scheduled to interview for the Giants’ head coach position, he received a series of texts from his former boss, Bill Belichick, congratulating him on landing the job. When Flores asked for clarification, Belichick admitted his mistake: “Sorry — I fucked this up. I double checked and misread the text. I think they are naming Brian Daboll,” wrote Belicheck, referring to the former Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator whom the Giants named as their new head coach on January 28. “I’m sorry about that.”

Whatever embarrassment Belichick feels for his mistaken text messages pales in comparison to the trouble that his messages have caused for the Giants. The timing of Belichick’s message — four days before Flores was scheduled to sit for an interview — suggests that the Giants had already chosen Daboll as their new head coach and were only interviewing Flores in order to comply with the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to hold an in-person interview with at least two non-white candidate for any head coach opening. In his lawsuit, Flores claims this was not the first time that he had been subjected to a sham interview so that a team could appear to be following the Rooney Rule. When he interviewed for the Denver Broncos top job in 2019, Flores alleges in his suit, Broncos senior executives arrived at the meeting an hour late and visibly hungover after “drinking heavily the night before.” The Broncos have subsequently denied the allegations — but Flores didn’t land the job.

Flores’ lawsuit adds another data point to the NFL’s bleak record on diversity hiring, but it also highlights the growing gap between the public story that the NFL tells about itself and the private experiences of the people the league has cast aside.

In the NFL’s telling, the league is nothing less than the perfect embodiment of the American Dream, a place where individuals of all races and creeds can overcome their differences to participate in something larger than themselves. The NFL’s desire to sell itself as a bastion of unity within an otherwise divided country was never more clear than during its commemoration of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, when the league used an eight-minute-long video, narrated by the actor Steve Buscemi, to draw a not-so-subtle parallel between the sense of unity that Americans felt in the days following the 9/11 attacks with the fellowship that football fans feel when gathered around the gridiron. In one interview, a New York City firefighter gave voice to the NFL’s preferred self-image: “Seeing the different sports coming back and games starting again, I think it helped with the unity,” said the firefighter, as images of NFL players handing out water bottles at Ground Zero flashed on the screen. “My father taught us that if we lost a football game, it was about getting knocked down and getting up.”

Yet this story of uplift and unity exists alongside — and increasingly in tension with — a parallel narrative that sees sports as a whole, and football in particular, as a mirror for the political and cultural divisions that beset American life as a whole. In Flores’ case, his mistreatment at the hands of the NFL’s powerful owners underscores not only the enduring obstacles that non-white Americans face in the workplace, but also American workers’ mounting frustration with a small, insular group of uber-rich businessmen who believe that the rules and obligations of civil society do not apply to them.

In this respect, Flores’ story is yet another sign that the NFL is quickly losing the thread. Almost every opportunity that the league has had in recent years to spin a feel-good narrative out of an otherwise-nasty situation has ended in only more embarrassment for the league. The laudable decision by the Washington Football Team — now the Washington Commanders — to abandon its racist mascot in 2020 was quickly overshadowed by accusations that Dan Snyder, the team’s embattled owner, had fostered a hostile workplace environment for women. Last year, the league’s landmark $1 billion settlement with players who suffered brain injuries while in the league came under fire for its use of “race-norming,” a racially-biased standard that critics say made it more difficult for Black players to qualify for awards. In January, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ attempt to rehabilitate star wide receiver Antonio Brown — who has been accused of sexually assaulting two different women, assaulting a delivery driver and forging a vaccination card — ended in dramatic fashion when Brown stripped to the waist in the middle of the Buccaneers game against the New York Jets, threw his shoulder pads into the stands and defiantly walked off the field. The Buccaneers released him later that day.

These are not the tales of a league that is in control of its own story. Instead, they are evidence of an organization whose self-conception fails to align either with its actions or with the expectations of its fans. This is precisely the reality that Flores’ lawsuit is designed to highlight.

In some senses, it is the ultimate irony that Flores — whose life story tracks so closely with the NFL’s meritocratic myth — has chosen to serve the league a heavy dose of reality. Yet in another respect, it makes perfect sense: Perhaps better than anyone else in the league, Flores understands intimately the ways that the league uses the success stories of its workers to shield itself and its owners from criticism. A profile on Flores published on the Miami Dolphins website in March of 2020, for instance, paints a tidy picture of how Flores’ on-field prowess earned him a scholarship at Brooklyn’s prestigious Poly Prep Country Day School — and a quick ticket off the street of Brownsville. “It doesn’t really matter where you’re from or what your situation is,” Flores is quoted as saying in the profile. “If you do what you’re passionate about and you have support, it goes so far.”

Yet with the suit — which could easily bring a premature end to his meteoric rise within the league — Flores has shown that his story belongs to him, not to a league that will use it to prop up its faltering self-image. In the process, he’s sent a different message: that the American Dream belongs to those who are willing to challenge the institutions that drape themselves in the American flag while refusing to embody its promise.

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