Judge: Brian Flores can press discrimination claims in court

NEW YORK -- NFL coach Brian Flores can pursue discrimination claims against the league and three teams after a federal judge on Wednesday rejected the option of arbitration, presumably before commissioner Roger Goodell, and offered some stinging observations about the status of racial bias in the sport.

The written decision by Judge Valerie Caproni in Manhattan clearing the way for Flores to bring his claims to trial also required two other coaches who joined the lawsuit to submit to arbitration. The league had tried to move the Flores claims to arbitration, citing contracts that coaches had signed.

The judge said that Flores can let a jury decide the merits of his discrimination claims against the league, the Denver Broncos, the New York Giants and the Houston Texans but that he must pursue his claims against the Miami Dolphins through arbitration.

Caproni also ruled that the claims brought by coaches Steve Wilks and Ray Horton, who joined the lawsuit, must go through arbitration.

Flores sued the league and the three teams a year ago, saying the league was "rife with racism," particularly in its hiring and promotion of Black coaches.

Caproni wrote that the descriptions by the coaches of their experiences of racial discrimination in a league with a "long history of systematic discrimination toward Black players, coaches, and managers -- are incredibly troubling."

The judge said it was "difficult to understand" how there was only one Black head coach at the time Flores filed his lawsuit in a league of 32 teams with Black players making up about 70% of the rosters.

"We are pleased that Coach Flores' class claims of systematic discrimination against the NFL and several teams will proceed in court and ultimately before a jury of his peers," attorney Douglas Wigdor said in an email.

He added: "We are disappointed the court compelled arbitration of any claims before Mr. Goodell as he is obviously biased and unqualified to rule on these matters. We expect him to delegate those matters to a truly neutral arbitrator as a matter of fundamental fairness."

The league did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press or say whether Goodell would recuse himself from the process.

Flores brought the lawsuit after he was fired by Miami, where he led the Dolphins to a 24-25 record over three years.

According to the lawsuit, 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 it could get the draft's top pick.

The lawsuit alleged that Ross then pressured Flores to recruit a prominent quarterback in violation of the league's tampering rules. When Flores refused, he was cast as the "angry Black man" who is difficult to work with and was derided until he was fired, the suit said.

The Dolphins responded to the lawsuit when it was filed by saying they vehemently denied any allegations of racial discrimination and were "proud of the diversity and inclusion throughout our organization."

Lawyers for the teams did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

When he brought the lawsuit, Flores said that he knew he was risking the coaching career he loves but that he hoped to bring positive change for generations to come by challenging systemic racism in the league.

The judge noted that Flores was announced as the new defense coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings earlier this month.

The lawsuit said that Wilks was discriminated against by the Arizona Cardinals in 2018 when he was hired as a "bridge coach" but was given no meaningful chance to succeed and that Horton was subjected to discriminatory treatment when he was given a sham interview for the position of Tennessee Titans head coach in January 2016.

In her opinion, Caproni said the case had shined "an unflattering spotlight on the employment practices of National Football League" teams.

"Although the clear majority of professional football players are Black, only a tiny percentage of coaches are Black," she wrote.

In deciding what claims in the lawsuit must go to arbitration rather than being litigated in court, the judge cited specifics about individual contracts and whether they were properly signed.

She also ruled that Goodell's possible role as the arbitrator did not invalidate the arbitration agreements. Caproni noted that the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had rejected an argument by lawyers for quarterback Tom Brady -- in a dispute over deflated footballs and a four-game suspension -- that Goodell could not, as a matter of law, fairly arbitrate claims regarding the league's conduct.

Caproni added, though, that letting Goodell be the arbitrator created a risk of bias and that it "is worrisome" that an NFL statement on the day Flores sued said the lawsuit was without merit.

She also noted that she will retain authority to review the commissioner's decision if he is the arbitrator.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.