Hours after the Carolina Panthers hired Frank Reich as the team’s head coach on Thursday, lawyers for former interim coach Steve Wilks ripped the decision.
Wilks is a co-plaintiff in racial discrimination lawsuit initially filed against the NFL a year ago by Brian Flores, the former Miami Dolphins head coach and current Pittsburgh Steelers senior defensive assistant/linebackers coach. After the Panthers fired Matt Rhule after a 1-4 start, Wilks went 6-6.
“We are shocked and disturbed that after the incredible job, Coach Wilks did as the interim coach, including bringing the team back into playoff contention and garnering the support of the players and fans that he was passed over for the head coach position by David Tepper,” attorneys Douglas H. Wigdor and John Elefterakis said in a statement to Front Office Sports.
“There is a legitimate race problem in the NFL, and we can assure you that we will have more to say in the coming days.”
Reich’s daughter, Hannah Reich Fairman, was hired by the Panthers in the team’s marketing department earlier this month, according to her Twitter account. Pro Football Talk was the first to report she had accepted a job days before her father’s hire was announced.
According to Fairman’s LinkedIn page, this would be her first job with a pro sports team on any level.
Just like Wilks’ lawyers used the Jon Gruden’s lawsuit against the NFL to bolster their case, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they linked the hire of Reich’s daughter to her father’s — especially if it could be proved Reich’s hire was preordained.
A spokesperson for the firms representing Wilks declined comment when FOS asked the hire could be included in a future pleading in the case.
The NFL has sought to move the case into arbitration. Valerie Elaine Caproni, the U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern District of New York, has not ruled on the NFL’s motion.
“Mr. Wilks has also taken the courageous step forward to oppose the NFL’s systemic discrimination,” attorneys for the plaintiffs wrote in April’s amended complaint. “Mr. Wilks was discriminated against by the Arizona Cardinals in a manner consistent with the experiences of many Black coaches.”
Ray Horton, a veteran NFL assistant coach, is also a plaintiff in the case.
In the weeks since the 2022 NFL regular season concluded, the issue of diversity in the coaching ranks is again in the spotlight. Wilks interviewed for the Panthers job, and NFL Network reported Thursday he intends to coach somewhere else in the league next season.
Flores reportedly interviewed recently for the Arizona Cardinals head coaching position and defensive coordinator jobs with the Atlanta Falcons, Cleveland Browns, and Minnesota Vikings.
The Dolphins fired Flores after the 2021 season. In the lawsuit, Flores called the interview with the New York Giants — who ultimately selected Brian Daboll — “a completely sham interview done only to comply with the Rooney Rule.”
Flores alleged that the Dolphins owner Stephen Ross allegedly offered him “$100,000 for every loss” to improve the team’s draft position, among other claims that led to an NFL investigation.
In August, the NFL stated that it could not verify the pay-to-lose claim, but it found Ross tampered when he tried to recruit Tom Brady to the team in 2019 while Brady was still under contract with the New England Patriots.
Ross was fined $1.5 million, suspended for the first month and a half of the 2022 season, and the Dolphins were docked draft picks.
The NFL has recently expanded the Rooney rule and created accelerator programs to develop diverse coaching and front-office candidates.
“I think it will bear fruit in terms of hires down the road,” said Steelers owner Art Rooney II, whose late father, Dan Rooney, pushed to diversify the coaching ranks two decades ago.