NEW YORK (AP) — NFL head coach Brian Flores could file discrimination lawsuits against the league and three teams after a federal judge on Wednesday denied the arbitration option, likely to Commissioner Roger Goodell, and made some stinging remarks about the state of racial bias in the sport.
Manhattan Judge Valerie Caproni’s written decision, which cleared the way for Flores to bring his claims to trial, also required that two other coaches who joined the suit be subject to arbitration. The league attempted to transfer the Flores team’s claims to arbitration, citing contracts signed by the coaches.
Flores sued the league and three teams last year, saying the league was “riddled with racism,” particularly in its hiring and promotion of black coaches.
Caproni wrote that the coaches’ descriptions of their experiences of racial discrimination in a league with “a long history of systemic discrimination toward black players, coaches, and managers—incredibly troubling”.
The judge said it was “difficult to understand” how there was only one black coach at the time Flores filed his lawsuit in a 32-team league and black players made up about 70% of the rosters.
The judge said Flores could let the jury decide the merits of his discrimination claims against the league, the Denver Broncos, New York Giants and Houston Texans, but he must pursue his claims against the Miami Dolphins through arbitration.
“We are pleased that Coach Flores’ collective claims of systemic discrimination against the NFL and many teams will move forward in court and eventually before a jury of his peers,” Attorney Douglas Wigdor said in an email.
He added: “We are disappointed that the court has had to arbitrate any claims before Mr. Goodell as he is clearly biased and unqualified to rule on these matters. We would expect him to delegate these matters to a truly impartial arbitrator out of basic fairness.”
NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy said the university was pleased with Caproni’s ruling, which “correctly finds that the vast majority of claims in this case are validly arbitrable by the Commissioner under binding agreements signed by each plaintiff.”
He said the NFL planned to “immediately proceed with arbitration proceedings as directed by the court and seek to dismiss 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 so.”
Flores sued after Miami fired him, leading 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 “tank” so he could get the best draft pick.
The suit alleged that Ross then pressured Flores to recruit a top quarterback in violation of the league’s tampering rules. When Flores refused, the lawsuit said, he was portrayed as a difficult “angry black man” and mocked until he was fired.
The Dolphins responded to the lawsuit when it was filed by saying that it had vehemently denied any allegations of racial discrimination and was “proud of the diversity and inclusion throughout our organization”.
Attorneys for the teams did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
When he filed the suit, Flores said he knew he was risking a coaching career that he loves, but that he hoped to make positive change for future generations 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 brought by Steve Wilkes and Ray Horton, two other coaches who joined the lawsuit, should be subject to arbitration.
The lawsuit said Wilkes was discriminated against by the Arizona Cardinals in 2018 when he was hired as a “bridge coach” but not given a real chance to succeed, while Horton experienced discriminatory treatment when he underwent a bogus interview with the Tennessee Titans. Head coach position in January 2016.
In her opinion, Caproni said the case shone an “indifferent light 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.
When deciding which claims in the lawsuit should go to arbitration instead of being litigated in court, the judge cited details about the individual contracts and whether they were properly signed.
It also ruled that Goodell’s potential role as arbitrator did not invalidate the arbitration agreements. Caproni noted that the US 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals had rejected an argument by quarterback attorney Tom Brady—in a dispute over deflated footballs and a four-game suspension—that Goodell could not, legally, fairly arbitrate claims for league conduct.
Caproni added, however, that allowing Goodell to be the arbitrator created a risk of bias and that it was “disturbing” that the NFL’s statement the day he filed suit against Flores said the lawsuit was without merit.
It also indicated that it would retain the power to review the commissioner’s decision if he was the arbitrator.
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