Brian Flores secured a significant courtroom victory Wednesday as a federal judge kept his racial discrimination lawsuit against the NFL and three teams in her court instead of arbitration.
The NFL’s lawyers had argued for months that Flores’ lawsuit should be shifted into the league’s arbitration process. Flores filed last year after he was fired as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins and alleged the New York Giants conducted a “sham” interview to comply with the NFL’s Rooney Rule.
“This case shines an unflattering spotlight on the employment practices of National Football League teams,” U.S. District Court Judge Valerie E. Caproni wrote in the introduction to her opinion. “Although the clear majority of professional football players are Black, only a tiny percentage of coaches are Black.”
Flores’ case will move forward against the Denver Broncos, New York Giants, Houston Texans, and the NFL in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Flores spent last season as a defensive assistant with the Pittsburgh Steelers and was recently hired as defensive coordinator by the Minnesota Vikings.
“The [core] of Mr. Flores’s claim is not that the NFL is generally racist,” Caproni wrote. “Rather, Mr. Flores claims that specific adverse employment decisions were driven by discriminatory animus harbored by the NFL and member teams.”
Caproni added that the NFL’s argument, “taken to its logical extreme, would bind a coach forever to arbitration, even if he were never again employed by a team in the NFL.”
“We are pleased that Coach Flores’ class claims of systematic discrimination against the NFL and several teams will proceed in court and ultimately before a jury of his peers,” Douglas H. Wigdor, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, said in a statement to Front Office Sports.
The NFL’s outside investigation into many of Flores’ claims couldn’t substantiate some of the allegations, including that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross offered Flores $100,000 for each loss. Ross was fined and suspended for tampering.
“Diversity and inclusion throughout the NFL make us a better organization. We recognize there is more work to be done and we are deeply committed to doing it,” NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy said in a statement. “That said, we are pleased with the court’s decision, which correctly holds that the vast majority of claims in this case are properly arbitrable by the Commissioner under binding agreements signed by each plaintiff. We intend to move forward promptly with arbitrations as directed by the court and will seek to dismiss the remaining claims.”
The league successfully got some claims moved into arbitration, including those brought by the two other plaintiffs in the case.
- Steve Wilks, a longtime NFL assistant who served as the interim head coach for the Carolina Panthers last season, saw his claim against the Arizona Cardinals compelled to arbitration. The San Francisco 49ers hired Wilks to serve as defensive coordinator last month.
- Longtime former assistant NFL coach Ray Horton’s claim against the Tennessee Titans compelled to arbitration.
- Caproni also shifted Flores’ claims against the Dolphins and New England Patriots into arbitration.
“We are disappointed the court compelled arbitration of any claims before Mr. Goodell as he is obviously biased and unqualified to rule on these matters,” Wigdor said. “We expect him to delegate those matters to a truly neutral arbitrator as a matter of fundamental fairness. We look forward to pursuing all these claims to trial in their various forums.”
The NFL appealed a similar ruling in former Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden’s lawsuit against the NFL after the league’s lawyers could not get that case dismissed or compelled to arbitration in a Nevada state court. The appeal is still pending.