NFL coach Brian Flores’ discrimination case goes to court

NEW YORK (AP) – NFL coach Brian Flores may file discrimination claims against the league and three teams after a federal judge on Wednesday rejected the possibility of arbitration, presumably before commissioner Roger Goodell, and made some stinging observations about the state of racial bias in the sport.

The written decision by Judge Valerie Caproni in Manhattan, which cleared the way for Flores to take his claims to trial, also required two other coaches who joined the suit to submit to arbitration. The league had attempted to move the Flores claims to arbitration, citing contracts the coaches had signed.

Flores sued the league and three teams a year ago, saying the league was “riddled with racism,” particularly in the hiring and promotion of black coaches.

Caproni wrote that the descriptions by the coaches of their experiences with racial discrimination in a league with a “long history of systematic discrimination against black players, coaches and managers – is incredibly disturbing.”

The judge said it was “difficult to understand” how there was only one black head coach at the time Flores filed the lawsuit in a 32-team league with black players who make up about 70% of the rosters.

The judge said Flores can let a jury decide the merits of his discrimination claims against the league, the Denver Broncos, the New York Giants and the Houston Texans, but he must pursue his claims against the Miami Dolphins through arbitration.

“We are pleased that Coach Flores’ class action claim of systematic discrimination against the NFL and multiple teams will proceed in court and ultimately before a jury of his peers,” attorney Douglas Wigdor said in an email.

He added: “We are disappointed that the court forced arbitration of any claims before Mr. Goodell, as he is clearly biased and unqualified to adjudicate these matters. We expect him to delegate these cases to a truly neutral arbitrator as a matter of fundamental fairness.”

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league was satisfied with Caproni’s ruling, which “correctly holds that the vast majority of claims in this case are properly arbitrable by the commissioner under binding agreements signed by each claimant.”

He said the NFL planned “to proceed expeditiously with court-ordered arbitration and to seek dismissal of the remaining claims.”

He added: “Diversity and inclusion throughout the NFL makes us a better organization. We recognize there is more work to be done and we are deeply committed to doing it.”

Flores brought the lawsuit after he was fired by Miami, where he led the Dolphins to a 24-25 record over three years.

According to the lawsuit, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross told Flores he would pay him $100,000 for every loss during the coach’s first season because he wanted the club to “think” so it could get the draft’s top pick.

The lawsuit alleged that Ross then pressured Flores into recruiting a prominent quarterback in violation of the league’s tampering rules. When Flores refused, he was cast as the “angry black man” who is difficult to work with and was taunted until he was fired, the suit says.

The Dolphins responded to the lawsuit when it was filed by saying they vehemently denied all allegations of racial discrimination and were “proud of diversity and inclusion throughout our organization.”

Attorneys for the teams did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

In taking the lawsuit, Flores said he knew he was risking his coaching career, which he loves, but he hoped to bring positive change for generations to come by challenging systemic racism in the league.

Judge noted that Flores was announced as the new defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings earlier this month.

Caproni ruled that the claims of Steve Wilks and Ray Horton, two other coaches who joined the lawsuit, must go through arbitration.

The lawsuit said Wilks was discriminated against by the Arizona Cardinals in 2018 when he was hired as a “bridge coach” but was given no meaningful chance to succeed, while Horton was subjected to discriminatory treatment when he was given a fake interview for Tennessee Titans head coaching position in January 2016.

In her opinion, Caproni said the case had put “an unflattering spotlight on the hiring practices of National Football League” teams.

“Although the clear majority of professional football players are black, only a small percentage of coaches are black,” she wrote.

In deciding which claims in the lawsuit must go to arbitration instead of being litigated, the judge cited details about individual contracts and whether they were properly signed.

She also ruled that Goodell’s possible role as arbitrator did not invalidate the arbitration agreements. Caproni noted that the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals had rejected an argument by lawyers for quarterback Tom Brady — in a dispute over deflated footballs and a four-game suspension — that Goodell could not, as a matter of law, adjudicate claims regarding the league’s conduct.

However, Caproni added that allowing Goodell to be the arbitrator created a risk of bias and that “it’s troubling” that an NFL statement on the day Flores sued said the lawsuit was unfair.

She also noted that she will retain the authority to review the commissioner’s decision if he is an arbitrator.

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