Two more Black NFL coaches are joining Brian Flores’ class-action racial discrimination lawsuit against the league adding more fuel to a controversy that has hovered over the league all offseason.
Former Arizona Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks and former Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Ray Horton, now retired, have signed onto the suit, in which Flores alleges that the NFL’s 20-year-old Rooney Rule requiring that nonwhite coaches be interviewed for head coaching vacancies is mostly window dressing.
Flores originally filed his lawsuit Feb. 1,after he was fired as head coach by the Miami Dolphins and interviewed by teams including the New York Giants, Denver Broncos and Houston Texans. The Texans, Flores has claimed, dropped him as a candidate only after he filed his lawsuit. They have since hired Lovie Smith, who is Black, as their head coach.
The suit has now been amended to include the Wilks and Horton as plaintiffs and adds the Texans, Titans and Cardinals to the Giants, Broncos and Dolphins as teams highlighted as defendants. Every other NFL team is named as “John Doe Teams” in both the original and amended complaints. The NFL has denied the allegations and hired former Obama administration attorney general Loretta Lynch to lead its defense against the case.
The original suit was full of potentially damning anecdotes about how NFL teams skirt the Rooney Rule. In one instance, Flores was congratulated by New England head coach Bill Belichick for getting the head coaching job in New York. The problem: Flores hadn’t even been interviewed yet and the text was meant for Brian Daboll, who the Giants announced as head coach a short time later.
“Sorry–I fucked this up,” Belichick texted, according tot he complaint.
Wilks and Horton are now adding tales of their own fucked up Rooney Rule interviews to the record. ESPN reports that former Titans head coach Mike Mularkey admitted in a podcast that the team told him he was their guy, but they had to conduct a few sham interviews before they could make it official.
Mularkey, who had been the team’s interim head coach for the final nine game of the 2015 season, said in a 2020 podcast that the Titans’ owners told him he was going to get the job before they’d completed the interview process, including interviewing two minority candidates.
Mularkey’s comments, part of a wide-ranging interview with the “Steelers Realm” podcast, were in response to a question about his regrets during his career. The comments take on new relevance since Flores filed his lawsuit in February, alleging he was discriminated against during interviews for head-coaching vacancies.
“I’ve always prided myself on doing the right thing in this business and I can’t say that’s true about everybody in this business,” Mularkey said on the podcast. “It’s a very cutthroat business and a lot of guys will tell you that. ... I allowed myself at one point when I was in Tennessee to get caught up in something I regret it and I still regret it. But the ownership there, Amy Adams Strunk and her family, came in and told me I was going be the head coach in 2016 before they went through the Rooney Rule. And so, I sat there knowing I was the head coach in ‘16 as they went through this fake hiring process. Knowing a lot of the coaches they were interviewing, knowing how much they prepared to go through those interviews, knowing that everything they could do and they had no chance of getting that job. Actually, the GM, Jon Robinson, he was in on the interview with me. He had no idea why he was interviewing me — that I had the job already. I regret. I’m sorry I did that. It was not the way to go about it.”
Wilks, meanwhile, alleges he was used as a “bridge” between Bruce Arians, who retired after the 2017 season, and current coach Kliff Kingsbury. Wilks was fired after one season in which the team went 3-13 but says he wasn’t “given any meaningful chance to succeed,” in Arizona, a claim that other Black head coaches have also mirrored in the NFL (Flores also claims the Dolphins’ ownership actually offered him financial incentives for the team to lose games in order to receive a higher draft pick the following year).
History may be repeating itself in the instance of Wilks and Arians. After his 2018 retirement, Arians returned to the NFL to head coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won Super Bowl LV in 2021. In March, he announced his retirement, clearing the way for his succession by another Black coach, former defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.
Did we mention there’s a ridiculously crazy Tom-Brady-fake-retirement conspiracy theory story tied to all this?