The National Football League has a long and troubled history when it comes to race and head coaches. Fritz Pollard broke the coaching color barrier in 1921. However, it took 68 years before Art Shell became the second Black man to lead a team.
At the turn of the century, the modern era had seen just four Black head coaches; at the dawning of 2022, in the league's 102nd season, 13 franchises had never hired a Black non-interim head coach and 11 others had only installed one.
Stated another way: Entering this hiring cycle, three-quarters of the league's 32 franchises had employed one or zero Black head coaches.
It is against that backdrop that former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores kicked off Black History Month last week by suing the NFL and three of its teams for an alleged pattern of racist hiring practices by the league and racial discrimination by the Dolphins, Broncos and Giants. The NFL had only one Black head coach entering this hiring cycle, and six of the first nine vacancies this year went to white men. Two of the final three openings went to diverse candidates -- the Texans hired Lovie Smith, who is Black, and the Dolphins appointed Mike McDaniel, who is multi-racial -- but those hirings came the week after Flores' lawsuit.
Only five of the last 36 head coach openings have gone to Black men, an "unacceptable" reality that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged just four days after a league statement said Flores' claims were "without merit." During his annual pre-Super Bowl news conference on Wednesday, Goodell was asked about the discrepancy between these two comments.
"It's a good question, which I've asked in our office and we've talked about it," Goodell said. "I think the initial reaction was regarding the legal claims themselves and not really what we would say the experiences of what Coach Flores was going through, and that's what I'm more interested in. I put the legal claims and the legal process to the side and that'll be handled by lawyers. To me, it's more important for us to sort of listen to [Flores], understand what he and other coaches are going through."
For his part, Flores' message is simple.
"We need change," Flores told ESPN last week. "The hiring practices in the National Football League -- the numbers speak for themselves. ... I've been in this league 18 years, and the National Football League is an example to the world, it really is. People follow the lead of the National Football League. They just do. That's how powerful this league is. There's an opportunity here, there really is.
"We are at a fork in the road. Things are either going to stay the way they've been, or we're going to move in a direction that not only will help and effect change among the Black and minority coaches in the National Football League, but [also elsewhere]."
Flores was fired last month following three seasons with the Dolphins. After inheriting a team that had posted losing records in nine of the previous 10 seasons, he exceeded expectations in Year 1 and then guided Miami to back-to-back winning campaigns in his final two years, overcoming a 1-7 start in 2021 with eight wins in the last nine games. Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, without citing specific examples, explained Flores' firing as follows: "I think an organization can only function if it is collaborative and it works well together. I don't think that we were really working well as an organization that it would take to really win consistently at the NFL level."
Flores subsequently interviewed for the Giants' head coach opening, but alleges it was a "sham" process because the team already had decided to hire Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. He attributed his belief to text messages he received days before the interview, in which Patriots coach Bill Belichick -- apparently believing he was speaking to Daboll -- congratulated Flores on being the Giants' choice. In his lawsuit, Flores alleges his interview was simply a means for the Giants to comply with the league's Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview at least two external minority candidates for vacant head-coaching positions. The Giants have issued a statement calling Flores' allegations "disturbing and simply false."
At this point, Flores is alone on an island. He is seeking class-action status, which would allow other coaches and personnel executives -- possibly even non-minorities -- to join him. But will they? The answer ultimately could determine whether the lawsuit is a moment that generates headlines or a movement that produces substantive change.
At least a dozen minority coaches and personnel people were contacted for this story, and none wanted to speak on the record for fear it could impact job security or mobility. However, there was unanimity among them that sham interviews and racial discrimination are part of the NFL hiring process. Said one personnel person of the lawsuit: "It's probably going to air out a lot of dirty laundry. What happened to [Flores] has been going on for decades, but no one has ever wanted to push the issue. Most have been happy to have the opportunity to work in the league and haven't wanted to walk away from that opportunity. I admire his resolve."
Not all have been willing to go along with the status quo. Clarence Shelmon spent a decade and a half as an assistant coach in the college ranks before jumping to the NFL, where from 1991 through 2011 he was a position coach for some of the game's top running backs, including Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson. From 2007 through 2011, he was the offensive coordinator of the Chargers, who ranked in the top five in scoring during each of those five seasons and went to the playoffs three times, including a trip to the AFC Championship Game. As Shelmon's career progressed, he dreamed of becoming a head coach. But the higher he climbed on the occupational ladder, the farther he says he found himself from his desired destination. So in 2012, having never been offered a single interview for a head-coaching position, he walked away from the game.
"It's emasculating. It's devastating," Shelmon said of the unequal playing field. "You work tremendous hours and you produce, then you see guys come into the game that have coached three years or they're sons of somebody else, and next thing you know, they're a head coach and you're not. You've been busting your ass all these years and you can't even get an interview. It really plays with your mind. You realize that you really don't have a chance. It's almost paralyzing.
"Part of the problem is that most coaches can't do anything about it because they need that salary. So they play the good soldier and they go on. But I was different. When I realized how this thing operated, I saved my money and I invested my money and I walked away on my terms. As much as I loved the game, which had given me everything, including my education, I could no longer look at myself in the mirror and know that I'm going along with this systemic racism. It's real, what Brian Flores is saying."
So real that other Black coaches privately admitted to NFL.com over the last week that they have considered leaving the game because they feel there is not a credible path to advancement at the highest levels. If Shelmon's story does nothing else, it speaks to the fact that the pain and trauma of discrimination stays with these coaches well after they retire. It has been a decade since Shelmon departed, yet the cuts have yet to heal.
Last year at this time, I was working on a story about the lack of diversity among head coaches in the NFL. The focus was primarily on the offensive coordinators who were set to face off in Super Bowl LV: Byron Leftwich of the Buccaneers and Eric Bieniemy of the Chiefs. At the time, Leftwich had never interviewed for a head-coaching position, while Bieniemy had completed nearly a dozen interviews but never gotten a job -- despite being part of a team that was in its second consecutive Super Bowl and coordinating an offense that featured quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the reigning Super Bowl MVP and former league MVP.
It was hard not to liken Bieniemy's plight to that of Sherman Lewis. Bieniemy was an All-America running back at Colorado, just as Lewis was an All-America running back at Michigan State. Bieniemy transitioned into coaching and broke into the NFL as a running backs coach, just as Lewis did when he vaulted into the pros in 1983. Bieniemy worked his way up to coordinator just as Lewis had worked his way up, and Bieniemy won a Super Bowl as a coordinator just as Lewis did, though Lewis won four rings total over the course of his NFL coaching career.
But perhaps the most striking similarity between the two is how they both watched white coaches from their respective teams' staffs get opportunities to be head coaches while they did not. In fact, five offensive assistants who began their Packers tenures with titles lower than Lewis' coordinator role during his eight seasons in Green Bay eventually went on to become head coaches: Jon Gruden (who started in Green Bay as an offensive assistant), Steve Mariucci (quarterbacks coach), Andy Reid (assistant offensive line/tight ends coach), Marty Mornhinweg (offensive assistant/quality control coach) and Mike Sherman (assistant offensive line/tight ends coach).
I tried multiple times to reach Lewis for that story -- he last coached for Washington in 2009 -- but he did not return the calls. Some friends who remain in contact with Lewis suggested the subject might be too painful for him to discuss, which is often the overlooked element of this story. The psychological pain of discrimination lingers long after these men leave the game, despite the fact that the league has made a push in recent years to focus on the importance of mental health.
It was jarring to many coaches of color last week when the NFL's initial response to Flores' lawsuit was to put out a statement of denial. However, by the weekend, Goodell issued a memo to all 32 teams announcing plans to "reevaluate and examine all policies, guidelines and initiatives relating to diversity, equity and inclusion," before adding: "Racism and any form of discrimination is contrary to the NFL's values." On Wednesday, Goodell answered a series of questions on the matter, lamenting the fact that these issues continue -- and asserting that any form of discrimination will not be tolerated.
"Last year, we were talking about the same subject, which I think is part of the frustration that all of us have, ultimately," Goodell said. "We're going to talk to other people, have independent people come in and look and help us evaluate, because it's sometimes hard to evaluate your own policies and procedures and make sure that we're doing everything we possibly can to create that opportunity for everybody."
And yet ... the NFL has never had a Black majority owner, has had only two Black club presidents, has a total of seven Black general managers, five of whom were hired in the last 13 months. The lack of diversity does not end there: Among the top 11 executives at the league office, there are only two Black people; within the newsroom at the NFL Media group, there is not a single Black person among the senior managers, those who determine how a league with a player population that is 70 percent Black is covered. That being said, I personally have never felt restricted in my coverage.
I asked Goodell on Wednesday about the lack of diversity at the highest levels of the NFL.
"We look at the same numbers and they are really part of the effort of, again, looking at, how do we become more effective in our policies and procedures?" Goodell said. "Is there another thing that we can do to make sure we're attracting that best talent here and making our league inclusive? If I had the answer right now, I would give it to you. I would've implemented it. I think what we have to do is just continue and find and look and step back and say, 'We're not doing a good enough job here.'
"The single responsibility comes on all of us in the NFL. And we have to be the ones that make that change, and we are the ones that have to make sure we bring diversity deeper into our NFL and make the NFL an inclusive and diverse organization that allows everyone the opportunity to be successful."
Which brings us back to Flores. Asked last week what he would like to see come from his lawsuit, he responded: "I would like to see the hearts and minds of the people making those decisions to change in a way where there is more -- what's the word I'm looking for? -- they want to or have a feeling to hire someone of color, that they can relate to that person, that they can build a relationship with that person. I think that's a little bit of the issue. Familiarity isn't there. We need to open up a little more and there's an opportunity for that."
The opportunity has always been there. The desire to act on it? History tells us that that is another matter.