Lawyers for former Miami Dolphins‘ head coach Brian Flores, who is suing the NFL for racial discrimination in its hiring practices, added two more former NFL coaches to an amended complaint on Thursday.
Steve Wilks, who was the Arizona Cardinals‘ head coach for one season in 2018, and Ray Horton, an NFL assistant since 1994 who interviewed for the Tennessee Titans‘ head coaching job in 2016, are now part of the lawsuit filed against the NFL, the Dolphins, the Denver Broncos, the New York Giants, the Houston Texans, the Titans and the Cardinals, plus 26 other “John Doe” NFL teams. The Titans, Cardinals and Texans were added to the suit as part of the amendment as well.
Flores’ attorneys allege in the amended complaint that the Texans “retaliated” against Flores by removing him from consideration for their head coaching vacancy “due to his decision to file this action and speak publicly about systemic discrimination in the NFL.”
The amended lawsuit was filed in the Southern District of New York. It asks for, among other things, increased transparency in NFL hiring, incentives for hiring Black coaches, and increased visibility for Black assistant coaches.
Lawyers say that Wilks was discriminated against as a “bridge coach” who was “not given any meaningful chance to succeed. Wilks was 3-13 in one season with Arizona before being fired and replaced by Kliff Kingsbury. Lawyers wrote that while Kingsbury has been successful, “Mr. Wilks, given the same opportunity afforded to Mr. Kingsbury, surely would have succeeded as well.”
“When Coach Flores filed this action, I knew I owed it to myself, and to all Black NFL coaches and aspiring coaches, to stand with him,” Wilks said in a statement released by his lawyers. “This lawsuit has shed further important light on a problem that we all know exists, but that too few are willing to confront. Black coaches and candidates should have exactly the same ability to become employed, and remain employed, as white coaches and candidates. That is not currently the case, and I look forward to working with Coach Flores and Coach Horton to ensure that the aspiration of racial equality in the NFL becomes a reality.”
Wilks returned to the NFL this year as pass game coordinator and secondary coach for the Carolina Panthers after spending one season as the University of Missouri’s defensive coordinator.
Horton was a defensive coordinator for the Titans in 2014-15 and interviewed for the team’s head coaching job. Lawyers said the interview was a “completely sham interview done only to comply with the Rooney Rule and to demonstrate an appearance of equal opportunity and a false willingness to consider a minority candidate for the position.” The Titans hired Mike Mularkey, who is white, for the job and Horton left to be the defensive coordinator in Cleveland. He has since retired.
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 allegations 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.”
ESPN became aware of the interview, which wasn’t widely circulated at the time, as part of reporting into the issues raised by Flores’ lawsuit and reached out to Mularkey for comment before the filing of the amended lawsuit. Mularkey was fired by the Titans in 2017 after he went 9-7 in back-to-back seasons and lost to the New England Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs.
“I believe you have the truth and what you need,” Mularkey told ESPN, via email. “Prefer not to comment any further.”
The Titans, in a statement to ESPN issued before the filing of the lawsuit, disputed Mularkey’s recollection of what happened during the interview process, but did not make Adams Strunk or any other executives available for comment.
“Our 2016 head coach search was an open and competitive process during which we conducted in-person interviews with four candidates and followed all NFL rules,” the statement said. “The organization was undecided on its next head coach during the process and made its final decision after consideration of all four candidates following the completion of the interviews.”
Two minority candidates who were finalists for the Titans job in 2016, Teryl Austin and Horton, did not respond to repeated interview requests by ESPN before the filing of the lawsuit. Austin is currently the defensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he works on the same staff as Flores. Flores, who was fired in January after three seasons with the Dolphins, was hired in February by head coach Mike Tomlin to be a senior defensive assistant and linebackers coach.
The NFL, when contacted by ESPN before the filing of the lawsuit, said it was not aware of Mularkey’s comments prior to being asked about them.
“I’ve done a lot of internal research and it never reached the NFL,” said Brian McCarthy, the vice president of communications for the NFL. “We were not aware of this as an issue.”
“I am proud to stand with Coach Flores and Coach Wilks in combatting the systemic discrimination which has plagued the NFL for far too long,” Horton said in a statement released by his lawyers. “When I learned from Coach Mularkey’s statements that my head coach interview with the Titans was a sham, I was devastated and humiliated. By joining this case, I am hoping to turn that experience into a positive and make lasting change and create true equal opportunity in the future.”
In the amended complaint, Flores’ attorneys write that on Feb. 4 it was widely reported that the Texans had narrowed their candidates for head coach down to Flores, Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon and Josh McCown. After it was announced that Gannon, who is white, was no longer in consideration, the decision was down to Flores or McCown, who also is white and does not have any NFL coaching experience.
The complaint states that the “Texans were rightfully concerned that if it hired Mr. McCown over Mr. Flores, it would bolster Mr. Flores’ allegations of systemic discrimination against Black candidates, particularly given that the team had just fired Black Head Coach David Culley after only one season. As such, later on the very same day that it was announced that the Texans had narrowed its search down to only two candidates, it also was announced that the team had decided to give an initial interview to its own Coach Culley’s Defensive Coordinator, Lovie Smith, for the Head Coach position.”
The Texans ultimately hired Smith, who also is Black, for their head coaching job. The complaint applauds the Texans for hiring Smith, who “is more than qualified for the role,” but says it is “problematic” that Flores was passed over because he filed his lawsuit.
The amended complaint also expands on allegations that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross offered Flores $100,000 per loss during the 2019 season — his first as head coach — in an attempt to “tank” to strengthen the value of the Dolphins’ draft pick. It states that Flores sent a memorandum on Dec. 4, 2019 to general manager Chris Grier, CEO Tom Garfinkel and senior vice president of football and business administration Brandon Shore in which he “detailed the toxicity that existed within the organization and explained the unreasonable position he was being placed in by the team ownership and upper management.”
Flores’ attorneys said that the NFL has a copy of that memorandum.
At its annual owners’ meeting last month, the NFL announced a new diversity advisory committee to review league and club policies on diverse hiring. The six-member committee “will lend its expert, external perspective on industry best practices and will evaluate league and club diversity, equity and inclusion strategies and initiatives, including all hiring processes, policies and procedures, with a primary focus on senior-level coach and front office personnel positions.”
“While the NFL may hire outside consultants, make minor rule changes, and pander to various interest groups, real and enduring change can only be accomplished through the appointment of a court ordered monitor as the NFL has demonstrated time and time again that it is incapable of policing itself,” lawyers Douglas H. Wigdor and John Elefterakis said in a statement.