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Can Brian Flores Win His Race Discrimination Lawsuit Against the NFL?

By Steven Ellison, Esq. | Last updated on

On February 1, former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores filed a class-action lawsuit against the NFL in federal district court in Manhattan. Flores, who is Black, claims that the NFL discriminated against him and other minorities in hiring, retaining, and compensating head coaches and others in team leadership positions.

You cringe when you read the statistics from his complaint:

  • Only one of the NFL's 32 teams employs a Black head coach
  • Only four employ a Black offensive coordinator
  • Only 11 employ a Black defensive coordinator
  • Only eight employ a Black special teams coordinator
  • Only three employ a Black quarterback coach
  • Only six employ a Black general manager
  • There are no Black owners of any NFL teams

Flores' lawsuit seeks more than just money. He also wants change. He specifically asks the judge to form and fund a committee dedicated to creating Black majority NFL team owners and a training program for lower-level Black coaches.

So the question becomes: Can Flores win?

What Must Flores' Case Prove?

Let's start with the way race discrimination cases work. This is a process, so stick with us here.

The ball starts in Coach Flores' hands. He has to allege — just like any employee would in a race discrimination lawsuit — that:

  • He is a member of a protected class (he is)
  • He suffered adverse employment action (he did)
  • He was qualified or met legitimate job expectations (he did)
  • A similarly situated employee outside of the protected class received better treatment than he did (many did)

Let's assume a court finds Flores met his burden here. Then it's the NFL's turn. They have to offer a non-discriminatory reason for the employment decisions Coach Flores challenges. For example, Flores was told, according to his complaint, that he was fired because he was hard to work with.

Then the ball goes back to the coach. He will have to show that the NFL's reasons are phony. To do that, Flores must prove the intent of those in the NFL responsible for making employment decisions.

Evidence of the NFL's Intent — Direct v. Circumstantial

There are two ways to do this. The first is through direct evidence, which directly proves a fact. Actually seeing someone shoot someone else is direct evidence that they killed them.

The second way is through circumstantial evidence. You infer the fact through evidence. For example, seeing someone holding a smoking gun next to a body is circumstantial evidence that they killed them.

Flores doesn't allege that anyone told him he wasn't getting a job or that he got fired because of race. So there is no direct evidence, meaning his case will rely on circumstantial evidence. Proving intent based on circumstantial evidence is a challenge. Courts will consider the evidence as a whole and will look to specific pieces, such as:

  • Statistics demonstrating a clear pattern of discrimination
  • The historical background of the NFL's employment decisions
  • The sequence of events leading up to those decisions
  • Any departures from normal employment procedures
  • Any pattern of actions by decision-makers showing much greater harm on minorities than on whites

What Will Happen?

At this stage of the case, the focus is on Flores' complaint. And the allegations are unsettling. Flores alleges the statistics we point out above and much more. There are allegations of bribery, tampering, and a hint of drunken debauchery thrown in. But is it enough to show intentional racial discrimination?

The NFL still needs to respond to the complaint in court. Rather than offering their own side of the story, they may ask that the judge dismiss the case outright. Then it's up to the judge to decide whether the allegations are enough to keep the case alive for now.

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