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 ranks, becoming an assistant coach to legendary New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick at the prodigious age. 28 years old. 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.

Until then, Flores’ story pretty much writes itself. But unfortunately for Hollywood screenwriters, that’s not how it ends.

On Tuesday, three weeks after being fired by the Miami Dolphins, Flores sued the NFL and three of its teams — the Denver Broncos, New York Giants and Miami Dolphins — alleging racial discrimination in their practices. hiring. Flores’ allegations are almost as dramatic as his meteoric rise. In the 58-page lawsuit, Flores alleges Dolphins owner and global real estate billionaire Stephen Ross pressured him to “tank” the team – or deliberately lose games in order to improve his picks. draft – offering him $100,000 for every game he lost. in the 2019 season, an offer he turned down. Flores also alleges that during the winter of 2020, Ross tricked him into attending an illicit recruiting meeting on Ross’ private yacht with a top quarterback, in clear violation of the League’s recruiting rules. NFL. After Flores refused to attend the meeting, he alleges in the lawsuit that he was “treated with disdain and presented as someone who was not compliant and difficult to work with,” which led to ultimately led to his dismissal.

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

Whatever embarrassment Belichick feels for his erroneous text messages pales in comparison to the problems his messages have caused the Giants. The timing of Belichick’s message — four days before Flores was scheduled for an interview — suggests the Giants had already picked Daboll as their new head coach and were only interviewing Flores to comply with the NFL’s Rooney rule, which requires teams to schedule an in-person interview with at least two non-white candidates for any head coaching opening. In his lawsuit, Flores claims it wasn’t the first time he was subjected to a mock interview so a team could look like they were following the Rooney rule. When he interviewed for the Denver Broncos’ managerial job in 2019, Flores alleges in his lawsuit, that the Broncos’ top executives arrived for the meeting an hour late and were visibly hungover after “drank a lot the night before”. The Broncos later denied the allegations — but Flores didn’t get the job.

Flores’ lawsuit adds another data point to the NFL’s dismal record of hiring for diversity, but it also highlights the growing gap between the public story the NFL tells of itself and the private experiences of people the league has left out.

In the NFL’s narrative, 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 bigger than themselves- same. The NFL’s desire to market itself as a bastion of unity in an otherwise divided country was never clearer than during its commemoration of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, when the league used an eight-minute video, narrated by actor Steve Buscemi, to draw a not-so-subtle parallel between the sense of unity Americans felt in the days following the 9/11 attacks and the camaraderie football fans feel when they are gathered around the grill. In an interview, a New York firefighter expressed the NFL’s preferred self-image: “Seeing the different sports come back and the games start again, I think it’s helped unity,” the firefighter said, then as images of NFL players handing over water bottles at Ground Zero flashed on the screen. “My dad taught us that if we lost a football game, it was about getting knocked down and getting back up.”

Yet this story of upliftment and unity exists alongside – and increasingly in tension with – a parallel narrative that sees sport as a whole, and football in particular, as a mirror of the political and cultural divisions that beset American life as a whole. In the case of Flores, his mistreatment at the hands of powerful NFL owners underscores not only the continuing obstacles faced by non-white Americans in the workplace, but also the growing frustration of working Americans with a small island group. ultra-rich businessmen who believe that the rules and obligations of civil society do not apply to them.

In that regard, Flores’ story is another sign that the NFL is quickly losing track. Almost every opportunity the league has had in recent years to spin a feel-good narrative out of an otherwise unpleasant situation has only resulted in more embarrassment for the league. The laudable decision of the Washington Football Team – now Washington Commanders – to ditch its racist mascot in 2020 was quickly overshadowed by accusations that the team’s beleaguered owner Dan Snyder fostered an environment hostile work for women. Last year, the league’s landmark $1 billion settlement with players who suffered brain damage while in the league was criticized for its use of the biased ‘race norm’ racial lines that critics say made it harder for black players to qualify for awards. In January, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ attempt to rehabilitate star receiver Antonio Brown – who was accused of sexually assaulting two different women, assaulting a delivery driver and falsifying a vaccination card – fell through. 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 stories of a league controlling its own story. Instead, they testify to an organization whose self-conception does not match its actions or the expectations of its fans. This is precisely the reality that the Flores trial is designed to bring to light.

In some ways, it’s the ultimate irony that Flores — whose life story so closely follows the NFL’s meritocratic mythos — chose to serve the league with a heavy dose of reality. Yet in another way, it makes perfect sense: Perhaps better than anyone else in the league, Flores understands intimately how the league uses the successes of its workers to shield itself and its owners from criticism. A profile on Flores posted on the Miami Dolphins website in March 2020, for example, paints a stark picture of how Flores’ on-field prowess earned him a scholarship to Brooklyn’s prestigious Poly Prep Country Day School — and a quick ticket down Brownville Street. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what your situation is,” Flores said in the profile. “If you’re doing what you’re passionate about and you have support, it goes so far.”

Yet with the suit – which could easily end his meteoric rise within the league prematurely – Flores has shown that his story belongs to him, not to a league that will use him to prop up its failing self-image. In the process, he sent a different message: that the American dream belongs to those willing to challenge institutions that drape themselves in the American flag while refusing to embody its promise.


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