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Has the NFL's Racial Reckoning Arrived?

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Usually the weeks before the Super Bowl are the time the NFL gets to celebrate itself. Instead, the league is reeling. Yesterday, former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores announced a racial discrimination lawsuit against the NFL and its teams. The lawsuit claims, among other things, that the league's so-called Rooney Rule is not working. That rule requires teams to interview a diverse list of candidates for head coaching and general manager positions. For more, we're joined now by Howard Bryant of Meadowlark Media. Hello, Howard.

HOWARD BRYANT: Hey, Tamara. How are you? Long time.

KEITH: Long time, indeed. This lawsuit is full of revelations, among them a text exchange Flores claims he had with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Briefly, what is Flores alleging happened here?

BRYANT: Well, essentially, he's alleging that he was supposed to interview for the New York Giants job and received a congratulations from New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick saying congratulations, Brian. But Belichick was talking about a different Brian. He was talking about Brian Daboll over with the Buffalo Bills, who ended up getting the job with the New York Giants. So here is Brian Flores believing he has an equitable shot at a job that's already been taken.

KEITH: And he hasn't even interviewed yet.

BRYANT: And he hadn't even interviewed yet.

KEITH: The Rooney Rule has been around for nearly 20 years now, and yet in 2022, there is only one Black head coach. There are some current vacancies. But is it time to say that this rule just isn't working?

BRYANT: Well, I think it's always been time to say that it was a failure because the reason - failure is the reason why it was incorporated in the first place. Any time you need a rule to force an industry to just interview candidates tells you the depths of your problem. And so I think that the real problem that the NFL is having is an overreliance on this rule when what they're really talking about is the fact that the NFL owners - there are 32 owners - don't want to hire Black coaches. It's really not that complicated. And so you run into this issue, and they treat it like it's the most vexing, complicated, difficult thing in the world when the bottom line is that these owners hire out of comfort. They hire who they want to hire, and that's why we have this situation every year.

KEITH: What are the odds that a lawsuit like this leads to the kind of structural change that is needed in the league that will stop these guys from hiring guys that make them feel comfortable?

BRYANT: Well, I think that it - usually it's going to be money. I mean, I think what will happen is is that depending on how this plays out financially, that usually is a motivator. Force is always a motivator. But this conversation that the hearts and minds are going to change and that's what has to happen for people to get better jobs is just nonsense.

KEITH: Flores is attempting to get other coaches to join him for a class-action suit. What is the likelihood of that happening?

BRYANT: Well, he's going to need to, Tamara, because that's what the lawsuit alleges. He's talking about 40 plus coaches that have been in that same room as he, as a Rooney Rule candidate that ended up not getting a job or a job that was already promised to someone else. And they're going to need that because you're not talking about yourself. If you only relegate this to yourself, then it just sounds like a guy who didn't get a job. But what he's really talking about is a massive structural issue at the height of this game, where the top jobs - quarterback coach, line - quarterback coach, defensive coordinator, offensive coordinator and head coaching jobs are simply not available to Black candidates.

KEITH: This is a depressing question to ask, but given what happened to former quarterback Colin Kaepernick for protesting racial injustice, is it safe to say that Brian Flores's NFL coaching career is over?

BRYANT: It's safe to say that that is a huge possibility. It's very safe to say that if he doesn't coach again, people aren't going to be surprised and they'll be cynical about it. And my problem with all of this, once again, is that, again, we have another Black professional who has to risk his entire career to try to create some sort of change.

KEITH: That is Howard Bryant of Meadowlark Media. Thank you for joining us.

BRYANT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.