Brian Flores is once again coaching in the National Football League. Yes, in a position he is overqualified for: defensive assistant in charge of linebackers. Yes, it is for a coach—the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin—that several weeks ago stood alone as the only Black head coach in the NFL. (There are now two.) Yes, it is for an organization owned by the Rooney family, which for 20 years has put forward the aspiration for racial equity in the coaching ranks. But it’s still a job, and even with the special circumstances surrounding the outlier history of the Steelers franchise, it’s a surprise twist in this story. Flores, of course, is suing the NFL for racial discrimination, an understandable reaction to finding himself outside the head coaching fraternity following his unexpected firing after two consecutive winning seasons with the Miami Dolphins. Most believe that when Flores issued this lawsuit, he was signing away any opportunity to coach again in the NFL. Flores, only 40 years old, certainly believed that this was a possibility. Speaking to ESPN last month, he said, “We didn’t have to file a lawsuit for the world to know there’s an issue. We need change. That was the No. 1 reason. I know there’s sacrifice, there’s risk to that, but at the end of the day, we need change.”
To Flores’s credit, the lawsuit is not going anywhere. His attorney confirmed as such in a statement, saying, “While Coach Flores is now focused on his new position, he will continue with his race discrimination class action so that real change can be made in the NFL.”
If anything, being hired for a job for which he is overqualified and underpaid speaks to why it is so important that he press on, have his day in court, confront the NFL, and achieve discovery so he can hold before the law and the public just how prejudicial the 32 NFL chief executives have been in their hiring practices. Yet I don’t think either the Rooney family or Roger Goodell’s NFL thought that this hiring would deter Flores from pursuing his case—or they are about as naive as people who thought that Aaron Rodgers would galvanize the players around him and lead the Packers to the Super Bowl.
The Flores hiring is first and foremost about the Steelers getting stronger. They now have the equivalent of Barry Bonds teaching batting practice. As Tomlin said in a statement, “Brian’s resume speaks for itself, and I look forward to him adding his expertise to help our team.” As for Flores, if he was looking to jump on somewhere as an assistant rather than sit home this season, it is damning that the other 31 teams were not lined up outside his door.
I reached out to N. Jeremi Duru, co-author of the book Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL. He was positive about the move, saying, “Historically, sports industry professionals who allege racial discrimination are subsequently shunned by leagues and clubs, and Flores obviously recognized the possibility that filing suit could end his career in the NFL. But he clearly wants to coach, and so the fact that the Steelers added him to its staff within a month of his filing is an extremely positive development. Art Rooney, Mike Tomlin, and the rest of the Steelers organization deserve credit for taking this step, which I imagine has infuriated some other club owners. Hopefully, next year, Flores is back in a head coaching role, which he deserves. In the meantime, the Steelers just made themselves a lot better, because Flores is a fantastic coach.”
But make no mistake, this is also about optics. This is about optics as much as the NFL’s announcement that former US attorney general Loretta Lynch and what is surely going to be a multicultural dream team would be leading its defense against Flores’s charges. This is about optics as much as the league’s painting “End Racism” in the end zones. This is about optics as much as turning over the Super Bowl halftime show to Jay-Z and Dr. Dre. This is about the NFL, like some kind of lumbering cyborg developing sentience, understanding that its response to Colin Kaepernick’s rebellion against racist police violence could not be replicated. It’s been six years and the “whiteballing” of Kaepernick and turning him into a pariah still rankles some fans and media members, and it particularly upsets many of the players. After the police murder of George Floyd in 2020, a group of stars led by the league’s number-one attraction Patrick Mahomes chastised the NFL for its response to player protests. Goodell was forced to give a mea culpa and said the league should have done better. No one knows and, given how skittish the league must be these days about putting anything down on paper or in an e-mail, no one will probably ever know if pressure was exerted on the Steelers to hire Flores. But the NFL clearly will be only too happy to marginalize Flores’s voice, keep him off the talk show circuit and focused on the Steelers defense. Yet this provides only a short-term PR solution that won’t mean a damn once Flores gets his day in court. It’s time to air out the racism in the NFL, and Flores appears undeterred in his efforts to throw the doors wide open.