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The NFL’s racist hiring practices won’t change until the NFL’s ownership does

The NFL has a long way to go before we see any real equity in the coaching and executive ranks.

NFL: New York Jets at Miami Dolphins Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL’s close-knit ownership group stands in the way of the league achieving any level of real equity. Brian Flores’ lawsuit is just another example of that reality.

The former Miami Dolphins head coach filed a class action lawsuit against the New York Giants, Miami Dolphins, Denver Broncos, and the rest of the league. This lawsuit comes on the heels of Brian Flores being fired despite leading the Dolphins to back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 2003. If that wasn’t enough to make one of the league’s three Black head coaches in 2021 suspicious of the standard he was being held to, the Giants then allegedly gave Flores a sham interview to satisfy the Rooney Rule when they had already agreed to hire Brian Daboll.

After his shocking firing, Flores was considered the top coaching candidate across the league. Despite this general consensus, four (white) head coaches have been hired before Flores, including Daboll. Now, with this lawsuit on the table, it is very likely Flores goes unhired and the NFL goes into next season with only one of its 32 head coaching positions occupied by a Black man and only two head coaching jobs filled by non-white men.

The question everyone should be asking is: How can this be fixed? Well, the solution needs to start at the top.

Flores’ lawsuit lays out a few ways that the NFL can amend and improve racial equity across the league: Expand diversity requirements in interview processes, require thoroughly written explanations on all major hiring and firing decisions, create more secure pipelines for players and young coaches to move up the coaching ladder to coordinator positions and beyond. The list goes on and on to lay out excellent amendments that would indeed provide more opportunities for Black candidates and other non-white people to pursue higher positions across NFL coaching staffs and front offices.

The NFL’s ownership structure is the root of this problem. The lawsuit positions NFL owners as the leaders of any franchise. Even as decisions might get delegated to other executives and front office figures, the buck stops with ownership. This is a structure that secures the racist system that undergirds the NFL and keeps a group of mostly older white men in positions of power and disproportionate wealth while suppressing mobility for a workforce that is largely made up of Black and other non-white workers.

The average age of an NFL owner is about 69 years old, with seven owners being over 75, including Jerry Jones, Stephen Ross and Robert Kraft. The NFL has an ownership class that came of age before the Civil Rights Movement and is filled with people who came into substantial means and positions of authority while the country around them still engaged in bitter fights over equal opportunity and integration. This alone shows the rocky ground these owners are standing on when it comes to meaningfully addressing systemic racism that they have helped cultivate.

Even blaming their age and wealth for putting them out of touch does not emphasize the stake the owners have in the league’s culture of racism. In the wake of massive protests against anti-Black racism in 2017, President Donald Trump denigrated players protesting against racism, calling them “sons of bitches” and saying owners should cut them. While owners talked out of one side of their mouth to say they would never impede a player’s right to protest, they largely donated millions to support Donald Trump’s reelection campaign. This has nothing to do with partisanship between owners that support Republicans v. Democrats, but rather that owners have no problems with explicit expressions of racism when it comes to their politics and no problem with doing harm when it comes to their bottom line.

Jerry Jones, whose wealth spread far beyond the NFL, had no problem price-gouging vulnerable Texans in the middle of a deadly ice storm. The Benson family was happy to assert their wealth and power when they helped the Archdiocese of New Orleans cover up rampant abuse scandals. And that was while the white coaches they employed were running a bounty program to maim players and win football games. Stephen Ross helped foster a racist, sexist and highly abusive culture at SoulCyle as it made him millions.

The NFL is led by people whose entire sphere of influence has been built through exploitation, discrimination and sometimes outright violence. Is it so hard to think these people might have a hard time fostering equity in an industry that underwrites most of their wealth? Why would owners change their ways when those ways have brought them this far?

Their racist, zero-sum approach impacts the league in obvious ways. There have only been 17 Black coaches in NFL history despite the NFL workforce being 70% Black men. Four of those head coaches have been fired after winning seasons, affirming that Black head coaches are held to a much higher standard and are given less time to build a winning culture than their white counterparts. Coaches like Steve Wilks and David Culley are treated like disposable stopgaps, while their white peers are given years to build out an NFL team. Brian Flores was allegedly offered money by Stephen Ross to lose football games while Ross invested millions into electronic gambling.

NFL owners largely see the Black men across the NFL as a means to an end. They are players who produce a product for them to sell. Because there are so many of them, maybe a few of them can have shots at more prestigious positions. But they likely won’t be honest opportunities. You can’t expect NFL owners to address the racism that is afflicting the NFL when Brian Flores’ lawsuit shows they are the racism that is afflicting the NFL. The NFL is a nothing but an ATM for this cartel of geriatric white gazillionaries, and asking them to see the humanity of their majority non-white workforce is a non-starter. Just ask the Black former players the NFL screwed over with blatantly racist pseudoscience in the league’s concussion settlement.

At the end of the day, however, the Shield of the NFL will always be used first and foremost to protect its owners. Just as the NFL has done everything to make the Washington email scandal go away, they will likely hold their ground against further accusations of abuse and flatly call them false, like they did a couple of hours after Flores’ lawsuit and allegations became public, dismissing the claims instantly as “without merit.”

As long as the owners remain untouched in all this, possibilities of change will always be subject to their whims. Even the Rooney Rule, insufficient as it currently is, was a pittance offered by a counsel of owners. A few decades after its inception, the only team that still employs a Black head coach is owned by the family that bears the rule’s name.

After the summer of 2020, the NFL had a real opportunity to look inward and substantially reform their league to ameliorate the racist harm they had caused. What they did instead was offer bromides about “ending racism” and lumps of cash towards social justice issues that amounted to a drop in the bucket for the league’s owners.

Now, the NFL is at a crossroads once again. Now, the league, its employees and the NFL media will scramble for ways to address the bone-deep bigotry in professional football. But the NFL will be right back at this point as long as its leaders are a group of America’s wealthiest who have only ever known how to discriminate and do harm.

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