Brian Flores’ battle against the NFL’s diversity problem

Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

I’ve been covering the NFL for 38 years, and the biggest legal thorn in the NFL’s side since 1984 was Al Davis’ consistent war with the league over where the Raiders would play. Jerry Jones challenging how teams could use their marks and team sponsorships was more of an inside-baseball thing. The case of ex-Miami coach Brian Flores is far different, and more threatening to the powerful and influential in the league. If what Flores claims is true—that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross offered him money to tank to get a better 2020 draft choice, and that the Giants conducted a sham interview with him after already deciding to hire Brian Daboll as coach—then Ross will certainly be forced to sell his team, and the flagship Giants franchise will be badly tarnished. Ross denies he did it, and the Giants deny they had a prior deal with Daboll before the Flores interview. So here we are.

There’s the threat of collateral damage along the way, particularly to Bill Belichick and the often-shadowy way teams pick coaches. Flores detailed his suspicions—that people like Belichick are kingmakers who have too much power over coach-hiring. Now, if true, proving that will be highly difficult. But Flores told Jay Williams on his NPR podcast: “I do think that there are back-channel conversations and back-channel meetings that are had that often times influence decisions. I think [the Giants hiring process] is a clear example of that. Here’s Bill Belichick, his résumé speaks for itself. He has influence. It was clear that that decision was made with his influence. That’s part of the problem. That needs to change.”

Two legal experts went through the case point-by-point with me. One, University of New Hampshire law director Michael McCann, told me the NFL will begin the fight with Flores by trying to have the case tossed; if it isn’t, then probably moving the case to confidential arbitration. (See: St. Louis versus the NFL, where the NFL settled by paying the city $790 million to avoid having top execs and owners deposed and risking a court case.) “The NFL will try to settle long before a trial ever happens,” said McCann, also a legal expert for Sportico. “To get to a trial would take a lot of things to happen. But in the case of his charge against the Giants, the Giants can say Daboll hadn’t been hired yet, and if he hadn’t signed an employment contract with the team before Flores was interviewed, then the facts would be really muddled. That’s problematic for him.”

The charges against Ross are more explosive. Flores alleged that in 2019, his first year as Dolphins head coach, Ross offered him bonuses of $100,000 per game if the team lost—to get a higher first-round draft pick in 2020, when Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa would be available. If true, Ross could not have known what record Miami would have needed to cop the top overall pick, but he did know—again, if true—that losing was Miami’s best option. As it turns out, because Cincinnati finished 2-14 and earned the top pick with a .545 strength of schedule, Miami would have had to be 1-15 that year because of its far weaker strength of schedule (.481). It’s hard to go 1-15. And Ross certainly should have known that Flores, who associates say is a principled person, would never have agreed to lose games on purpose. Miami finished 5-11 and picked fifth. As it was, the Dolphins could still have picked Herbert, who clearly has been a better player than the QB Miami chose, Tagovailoa.

So Miami actually failed twice. They failed to lose spectacularly enough to earn the Burrow pick. They failed when picking Tagovailoa over Herbert.

If Flores can prove the case—and he’d better have at least one rock-solid witness—the implications would be massive. It could force the NFL to confront tanking and change the draft to a lottery, as the NBA does. It would force Ross to sell the franchise and perhaps to be charged with a crime. And with the NFL being in bed with gambling companies all of a sudden, the league would have to put more guardrails in place to assure there’s no funny business with the outcome of games. There’s a lot at stake.

The NFL’s Job Now

Frankness would help. Two hours after the Flores news exploded, the league issued a statement that said his claims “are without merit.” A day later, Chris Mortensen reported the NFL would investigate Flores’ allegations about Ross and tanking. And Saturday, Goodell sent an email to all top club personnel acknowledging the efforts to improve diversity in coach hiring “have been unacceptable,” and “outside experts” would be brought in to review what’s wrong.

Which is it? “Without merit?” Or we’re serious about getting to the bottom of tanking a day later? Or it’s so bad we’ll engage outside experts to help us out of this quality quicksand? All those reactions, in the grand total of a four-day time span.

Goodell wields significant power among owners here. As much as the public thinks he’s a human shield to block damage to the 32 owners—and he is—Goodell also has shown he has the power and the conscience to push things that are good for the game. When there’s a rules proposal that he and the Competition Committee believe is best for the league (i.e., moving the PAT line back 13 yards in 2015 to make it a competitive play), Goodell can arm-twist with the best of commissioners. He needs to do that with the 32 owners. Now.

Whatever the progress point, and it must be more than cosmetic, Goodell needs to take some of the decision-making out of the owners’ hands. They’ve proven time and again that they talk a good game and say they’re all-in on making coaching ranks more diverse. Then, nothing. That’s why the next move should be a mandatory move by the league—as in my idea about the mandatory hiring of a minority coach who would touch the quarterback and the passing game daily—or the idea of implementing a system to reach a minimum number of minority coaches at the top positions around the league.

Read more in Peter King’s Football Morning in America column