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Brian Flores’s NFL Discrimination Lawsuit Is Gaining Steam

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - SEPTEMBER 26: Head coach Brian Flores of the Miami Dolphins looks on during the second half of a game against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium on September 26, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Raiders defeated the Dolphins 31-28 in overtime.
Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

In February, former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores sued the NFL and all 32 teams over their racist hiring practices, a situation, the lawsuit says, which has “only been made worse by the NFL’s disingenuous commitment to social equity.” As part of the lawsuit, Flores said that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross offered him money to lose games in the 2019 season in order to get the No. 1 draft pick the following year, and that he was not seriously considered for other head coaching jobs because of the league’s bias against black head coaches. Now, two other former black NFL coaches have joined Flores’s racial discrimination lawsuit against the league.

Steve Wilks, who was the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals in 2018, and Ray Horton, a longtime assistant coach who interviewed for the Tennessee Titans’ head coach job in 2016, were added to the lawsuit, according to an amended complaint filed Thursday in the Southern District of New York. The complaint includes a transcript from a 2020 podcast in which Mike Mularkey, a white former NFL head coach, admits he was hired to be the head coach of the Tennessee Titans in 2016 before the team interviewed black candidates as mandated by the league’s Rooney Rule, effectively outing the team’s hiring process as a sham. Further, the amended complaint describes a memo Flores sent to Dolphins executives in December 2019 that described the “toxicity that existed within the organization and explained the unreasonable position he was being placed in by the team ownership and upper management,” raising questions about what the NFL knew, and when, about his allegations.

Like Flores, both Wilks and Horton claim they were not given a fair chance to succeed due to endemic racism in the highest levels of the NFL. The particulars of their complaints echo Flores’s in several ways. Wilks claims he was brought on by Cardinals management before the 2018 draft to be, it ultimately became clear, a “bridge coach,” and that he was undermined repeatedly by GM Steve Keim. Here’s one early example, per the lawsuit:

Before the 2018 NFL draft, Mr. Wilks inherited a team with no starting quarterback as veteran Carson Palmer had retired. Heading into the draft, Mr. Wilks urged General Manager Steve Keim to trade up in the draft to select quarterback Josh Allen. Josh Allen was selected 7th overall and is now a professional bowl player with a 39-21 record as a starting quarterback. Instead, at Mr. Keim’s decision and in contrast to Mr. Wilks’ suggestion, the Cardinals traded up to the 10th spot, to draft quarterback Josh Rosen. Unfortunately, history would reveal this move to be one of the great draft gaffes of all time. Mr. Rosen was not ready to be a starting quarterback in the NFL and ultimately had an unsuccessful career. He was cut mid-season by the Atlanta Falcons (the “Falcons”) this past year after hardly playing.

Like Flores, Wilks said team executives wanted to lose games in order to secure the No. 1 pick in the draft.

In week 13, Mr. Wilks helped lead the team to an upset victory playing on the road against the Green Bay Packers. After the game, a colleague told Mr. Wilks that he shared an elevator ride with Mr. Bidwill and Mr. Keim and that they were “pissed” that the Cardinals won the game; i.e., they were upset because the win might have compromised the Cardinals’ ability to obtain the first pick in the NFL draft.

The Cardinals finished with a 3-13 record that season and Wilks was fired the day after the final game, after just one season and before the team drafted quarterback Kyler Murray with the No. 1 pick. The club then hired Kliff Kingsbury, who is white and had no NFL coaching experience, to replace Wilks. Though the Cardinals finished the subsequent season with only two more wins than in Wilks’s year in the head coach position, Kingsbury was not fired and instead was given another year to continue building the team.

“When Coach Flores filed this action, I knew I owed it to myself, and to all Black NFL coaches and aspiring coaches, to stand with him,” Wilks said in a statement put out by lawyers. “This lawsuit has shed further important light on a problem that we all know exists, but that too few are willing to confront. Black coaches and candidates should have exactly the same ability to become employed, and remain employed, as white coaches and candidates. That is not currently the case, and I look forward to working with Coach Flores and Coach Horton to ensure that the aspiration of racial equality in the NFL becomes a reality.”

In Horton’s case, the complaint says, he was interviewed for numerous head coaching positions over his decades-long career as an NFL coach and was never hired for any of them. In 2016, he interviewed with the Tennesse Titans for the head coaching job. From the complaint:

On January 15, 2016, [Tennessee Titans president Steve] Underwood called Mr. Horton—who was home in Phoenix at the time—and asked him to immediately get on a flight to Tennessee to interview for the Head Coach job the next day The urgency of the request was, so Mr. Horton was told, due to the fact that Titans owner Amy Adams Strunk’s (the controlling owner of the Titans) granddaughter was competing in an equestrian event for which she had to get to Tampa, Florida on Saturday. Thus, Mr. Horton took a red-eye flight on little notice to interview for the Titans Head Coach position the next day, January 16, 2016.

As Mr. Horton now understands, the rush to interview him was an orchestrated attempt to make it appear that the Titans had complied with the Rooney Rule and otherwise appear to have given an equal opportunity to Black candidates so the team could announce the
pre-made decision to hire Mr. Mularkey as Head Coach.

Though Horton’s interview went well, the filing says, he was called later that day and told Mularkey got the job. In a 2020 podcast, Mularkey, who was by that time retired from the league, was asked if he had any regrets in his career. He said:

I’ve always prided myself on doing the right thing in this business and I can’t say that’s true about everybody in this business,” Mularkey said on the podcast. “It’s a very cutthroat business and a lot of guys will tell you that. … I allowed myself at one point when I was in Tennessee to get caught up in something I regret it and I still regret it. But the ownership there, Amy Adams Strunk and her family, came in and told me I was going be the head coach in 2016 before they went through the Rooney Rule. And so, I sat there knowing I was the head coach in ’16 as they went through this fake hiring process. Knowing a lot of the coaches they were interviewing, knowing how much they prepared to go through those interviews, knowing that everything they could do and they had no chance of getting that job. Actually, the GM, Jon Robinson, he was in on the interview with me. He had no idea why he was interviewing me — that I had the job already. I regret. I’m sorry I did that. It was not the way to go about it.

These comments had not been widely reported until today, when they were included in the amended complaint. According to an ESPN report by Kevin Van Valkenburg, however, he had learned of the comments before the amended complaint was filed, as a part of the reporting process, and reached out to Mularkey for comment.

“I believe you have the truth and what you need,” Mularkey told ESPN. “Prefer not to comment any further.”

“When I learned from Coach Mularkey’s statements that my head coach interview with the Titans was a sham, I was devastated and humiliated,” Horton said in a statement. “Although I know that I am taking a risk being associated with this case, it would be a bigger risk to stand on the sideline and give the NFL a pass for the systemic discrimination that has harmed me and so many others.”