Former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores takes the field for Miami's game against the New York Giants on Dec. 5, 2021.
Washington CNN  — 

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Hip-hop took center stage during a glorious and historic Super Bowl halftime show last Sunday, yet the lineup felt at least a little bit strange, given that the NFL is in the thick of another controversy over race and racism.

During the show, Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige, Dr. Dre, Eminem and Kendrick Lamar put on a dynamic spectacle that reminded audiences that hip-hop and its apostles have always grappled with questions of race and power. For instance, Eminem ended his 2002 anthem “Lose Yourself” by taking a knee – a clear reproduction of Colin Kaepernick’s protest against anti-Black police brutality. And Dr. Dre reiterated that he’s “still not lovin’ police.”

Yet the performance arrived at a moment when the NFL is being forced to examine racial hierarchies within its own orbit. Indeed, the league has a history of “doing things only when absolutely forced,” the journalist Jemele Hill told CNN.

Brian Flores, the former head coach of the Miami Dolphins who was fired at the close of the 2021 season, has filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the NFL as well as three of its franchises, alleging racial discrimination.

The NFL has hired former US Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who was the country’s first Black woman attorney general, as part of its defense council in the lawsuit, the league announced on Wednesday.

While the majority of players in the NFL are Black, most head coaches are White. Currently, there are two Black head coaches: the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, and the Houston Texans’ Lovie Smith.

“Biased decision-making, organizational cultures that value similarity, and societal forms of bias and discrimination are all to blame for the lack of diversity among NFL head coaches,” the Texas A&M University professor George B. Cunningham, whose research focuses largely on diversity and inclusion in sport and physical activity, recently wrote for The Conversation. “Until structural change occurs, the pattern will continue.”

Crucially, this exclusionary pattern has consequences.

Organizational scholars have consistently shown that people are most likely to hire others who are of the same race. Bias among decision-makers can affect the diversity of the organization,” Cunningham noted.

The sports sociologist and civil rights activist Harry Edwards echoed some of Cunningham’s sentiments, saying on Twitter that the controversy currently gripping the NFL ought to come as no surprise, given the league’s history: The modern NFL didn’t have a Black head coach until 1989, when Art Shell took over the position for the Los Angeles Raiders.

“It most certainly can’t be claimed that nobody saw this coming,” Edwards said.

To discuss the NFL’s most recent crisis, I spoke with Hill, who’s joining CNN+ this spring to co-host a weekly show with Cari Champion. During our conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, Hill and I talked about some of the limits of the Rooney Rule that requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching jobs and certain other top positions, the necessity of broad support for Flores so that he’s not in a one-man fight and the role that shaming can play in fueling change.

Why is all of this coming to a head now, when the league has long had biased hiring practices?

I think because we have litigation. And it came to a head in a similar way before. That’s how we got the Rooney Rule. It was Johnnie Cochran (and Cyrus Mehri) back in 2002 who threatened to sue the NFL after Tony Dungy was fired, though he had a winning record. (Dennis Green also was fired, following his first losing season in a decade.)

That’s basically what forced the NFL owners to address the lack of Black people being hired for coaching jobs and also address the fact that there were instances where Black coaches had a winning record and were fired.

So, what’s happening right now isn’t new. And unfortunately, the NFL has a history – much like the rest of America – of doing things only when absolutely forced. It never does anything out of the goodness of its heart. It usually has to come from outside pressure. And this is just another example of how litigation has once again brought the league to a reckoning.

Are we seeing the limits of the Rooney Rule?

One way to look at this is through the Civil Rights Act. We know what the law said and what it attempted to do, and yet institutional racism is still very much present. So, laws and procedures and guidelines – they’re only going to go so far. What they can never fully address is the fact that the US has been embedded in an institutionally racist system – the system being every corner of society – for so long that waiting it out with just legislation is not possible. Confronting the issue requires a lot of different tactics. A rule is just one of them.

I think that the people who believed that the Rooney Rule was going to fix everything were being naive. Because if the Civil Rights Act, if the Voting Rights Act, if Brown v. the Board of Education couldn’t fix everything in the US, why would the Rooney Rule be able to fix everything in the NFL?

It has to be more than just a rule. It has to be a mentality, an attitude, an approach. It also has to be intentionality among those with the most power. They have to be willing to do things that will topple the system that’s been built. And the reality is that – and it sounds harsh to say out loud – there are more people invested in racism than anti-racism. As long as there are more who are invested in racism, we’re always going to get stops and starts when it comes to progress.

What will it take for Flores’ lawsuit to create deeper change, then?

It’s going to require people who have things to lose to put it all on the line. Flores is a young guy and can be a head coach. He’s basically put his career on the line. But he can’t be the only one. If this lawsuit is just Flores versus the NFL, it’s not going to get where it should.

This is going to require every Black coach with a stake in the game to join Flores, whether you feel like you’ve been directly influenced or not. I’m guessing that the majority of them can speak to a lot of the things in the lawsuit. But as we see with progress elsewhere, shaming works. The NFL does not want this to stay in the headlines. It doesn’t want this lawsuit to really see the light of day in terms of it actually going to trial. There’s a discovery process. The NFL doesn’t want that.

That’s why all of these coaches really need to band together, because the NFL can’t blackball everybody. Flores is unlikely to get a job with the way things are going in the NFL. But if 20 or 30 coaches join him, do you think that they (the NFL) are going to blackball everybody? They’re not. And if they did, they know how that would look.

The fact that we all openly say and know that Flores is unlikely to get a head coaching job is a problem. And the NFL should be ashamed of that. But we’re saying it like we’re saying water is wet, and that, to me, really crystallizes everything that’s wrong with the NFL. So again, this can’t be a one-man fight. It has to be a team fight, to use football language. And if it’s not a team fight, the lawsuit doesn’t have a chance to make the kind of impact that’s required for this system to be different for the next generation of Black coaches.

Is there anything you think people tend to miss in conversations about the NFL and race?

Racism is always treated as unintentional, when the entire system was designed for it to work that way. The NFL was designed to not have Black men as leaders. That’s why it took so long for Black quarterbacks to be a thing. And now we’re on the next level of that with coaches. The system was never designed in a way that included having Black people in power.

And so people need to understand that this is not a matter of, “The NFL just so happens to not have very many Black coaches.” This is how it was supposed to be. Once you understand the intentionality of the system, you can take it with the seriousness that’s required and keep the NFL under the scrutiny that it deserves.