Brian Flores is driven by moral rectitude, say friends

During his first preseason as head coach of the Miami Dolphins, in 2019, Brian Flores spoke movingly about the social injustice he faced as a young black and Latino man in the distressed section. from Brownsville to Brooklyn.

Referring to athletes like then-Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills and ostracized quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Flores said he applauds those who protest racial inequality and police brutality.

“They draw attention to my story,” Flores, the son of Honduran immigrants, told reporters. “I am the son of immigrants. I’m black. I grew up poor. I grew up in New York during the stop-and-frisk era. I was arrested because I matched a description before. So whatever these guys are protesting, I’ve been through it, I’ve been through it.

Fired last month by the Dolphins, although he posted a winning record in two of his three seasons as head coach, and then went through what he described as an interview “fictitious” with the Giants, Flores now sees himself as having been arrested – or at least turned away – yet again because he fit a certain description.

On Tuesday, Flores, who turns 41 this month, filed a class action lawsuit, accusing the NFL of systemic racism by discriminating against him and other black coaches in its hiring practices. In a 32-team league in which about 70% of players are black, only one current head coach — Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers — is black.

Nine teams had head coaching openings during this year’s hiring cycle, and of the six teams that have already hired or are said to have decided to pick one, the job went to a white male.

Harry Edwards, the eminent sociologist and social activist who is a longtime consultant to the San Francisco 49ers, said: “We are about to have more African Americans on the Supreme Court of the United States than like NFL head coaches. It’s outrageous.”

Flores’ lawyers did not make him available for an interview. He has said in several television appearances that real change will not come from political fiat, but only by changing “the hearts and minds” of key NFL team owners. Only two aren’t white — Shahid Khan of the Jacksonville Jaguars, a Pakistani American, and Kim Pegula of Buffalo, a Korean American who owns the Bills with her husband, Terry.

Some who have known Flores for many years, including Dino Mangiero, his high school coach at Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn, say he has long had a strong sense of moral purpose. Mangiero described Flores as “serious as a heart attack” and “a principled man who if he feels something is wrong, he won’t tolerate it”.

“I think all he’s looking for is a sincere shot,” said Mangiero, 63, who played six seasons in the NFL and recently signed to coach Archbishop McCarthy High School in Southwest Ranches, Fla. . “I’m very proud of him. He stands up for what he believes in. It takes a lot of courage. His career is at stake, there’s no doubt about it.

As Flores contemplates an uncertain future, the friends he has kept since his days at Poly Prep have rallied behind him. Clifton Coker, who like Flores attended private school through a scholarship program for promising student-athletes, said Flores relied on mentors and tried to do things the right way to achieve his goals. career goals. “For something to feel wrong, and in the direction that it’s been taught to believe, it’s disheartening,” Coker said.

After graduating from Boston College, where a leg injury ended any hope of playing in the NFL as a safety or linebacker, Flores joined the staff of the New England Patriots in 2004. He started as an assistant scouting, transporting players to and from the airport. , picking up dry cleaning, sleeping on an air mattress in a friend’s attic.

But even then, Scott Pioli, New England’s vice-president of player personnel at the time, saw the caring nature of Flores. Before the Super Bowl in 2019, Pioli, who had moved from New England by then, said he used to jokingly call Flores “the union boss” and “Jimmy Hoffa.” If one of the scout assistants had a problem or a question, Flores spoke about it with Pioli.

Nate Solder, who won two Super Bowls in New England as an offensive tackle and most recently played for the Giants, recalled Flores’ sense of fairness in an interview. Once, Solder said, Flores upset the veteran Patriots forward line in practice by putting his foot on the ball and disrupting the rushing offense so he could set up the defense. scout team.

“I’ll spare the tongue, but it was intense,” Solder said. “It was like, ‘I’m going to fight you for this. I don’t care. I’m going to do this right.'”

During a training camp workout in 2019, Flores played eight consecutive Brooklyn-born Jay-Z songs after Stills criticized the rapper as deaf when he entered into an entertainment and social justice partnership with the NFL Jay-Z said the league had “gone past kneeling” for the anthem, which angered Stills, who took a knee to protest racial inequality.

Flores received some criticism, including from the Miami Herald’s editorial page, which likened her choice of music to “a smiley taunt, giving the backhand to a real American scourge” of police brutality.

Flores did not apologize, saying he challenged Stills not to let the outside world affect his performance. Her own sense of righteousness, Flores said in 2019, shortly before her mother, Maria, who died of breast cancer, was instilled by her unwavering values. Maria Flores raised five sons while the family patriarch, Raul Sr., was away for months as a merchant marine.

Education was paramount. Four of the Flores siblings, including Brian, earned master’s degrees. His mother, he said, never seemed to flinch, even when she and her children had to climb 20 flights of stairs, sometimes carrying groceries, when the elevators broke at the Glenmore housing complex Plaza in Brownsville.

“She had a tremendously positive impact on me about how to treat people and lead with honor and integrity and do things the right way, always,” Flores said.

He spent 15 seasons with the Patriots, became the defensive caller and was part of four Super Bowl championship teams. Then, at age 37, he was hired by the Dolphins, becoming one of three black head coaches at the time. Since the so-called Rooney Rule was enacted in 2003 to spur more inclusive hiring, 27 of the 127 head coaching positions available in the NFL, or about 21%, have been filled by people of color, according to the ‘Associated Press.

At 40, Flores was fired. Stephen Ross, owner of the team, said: “An organization can only work if it is collaborative and works well together. Flores reportedly had a strained relationship with Dolphins general manager Chris Grier and starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Not all players liked his intense training style.

In television interviews since his dismissal, Flores has spoken with a sense of betrayal, using words like humiliation, disbelief, hurt, anger. The classic immigrant assurance his mother gave him – work hard and the opportunity will come – has, he says, been distorted.

Ross pressured him to book the 2019 season for a top first-round pick, offering him $100,000 for each loss, a proposal he declined, Flores said in his lawsuit. And he cited text messages he said were sent by his former boss, New England coach Bill Belichick, on January 24. In the messages, Belichick appeared to congratulate Flores on being hired to coach the Giants, a job he has yet to get. January 27 interview for. The messages appeared to indicate Belichick intended the correspondence for another Brian — Brian Daboll, who is white and was hired by the Giants.

Ross called Flores’ allegations “false, malicious and defamatory.” The Giants said Thursday they had “concrete and objective evidence” that their coaching decision was not made until the day after Flores was interviewed, and that his claims are “disturbing and simply untrue.” But some other former black NFL coaches, Hue Jackson and Marvin Lewis, spoke of the familiarity of Flores’ desperation. And Solder, who is white, was among the players who tweeted in support of Flores.

“I have no doubt what he’s describing is totally accurate,” Solder said in an interview.

Legal experts say Flores’ case will be tough to win unless he can prove race was a factor in his job refusal.

Edwards, the sociologist, said it seems likely Flores will encounter the same resistance faced by Curt Flood, the St. Louis Cardinals center back who lost his legal challenge in the 1970s to overturn the reserve clause of the Major League Baseball, which tied players to a team. for their entire career. Free agency finally came, but at a high professional and personal cost to Flood.

And now Flores is in danger of no longer coaching.

“We are so mired in racism and traditions of exclusion and martyring those who oppose it, that we say this is the expected price to stand up,” Edwards said.

Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, described Flores as “the coaching equivalent of Kaepernick,” saying he couldn’t see Flores being offered another coaching job in the short term, maybe never. .

But, Lapchick added in a more optimistic tone, the athlete activism that intensified during the racial reckoning following the May 2020 killing of George Floyd could turn its attention to the hiring practices of varsity teams and professionals.

“Not that they would require hiring a black coach,” Lapchick said, “but that they open up the process to make sure there’s a fair process, which usually ends up with more diverse applicants and more diverse choices.

Sheelagh McNeill contributed to the research.

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