Wilks, Horton join Brian Flores’ lawsuit against NFL, teams, alleging racism in hiring practices

Attorneys for former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, who is suing the NFL for racial discrimination in its hiring practices, added two other former NFL coaches to an amended lawsuit Thursday.

Steve Wilks, who was the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals 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. , Dolphins, Denver Broncos, New York Giants, Houston Texans, Titans and Cardinals, plus 26 other NFL “John Doe” teams. The Titans, Cardinals and Texans were also added to the lawsuit as part of the amendment.

Flores’ attorneys allege in the amended lawsuit that the Texans “retaliated” against Flores by removing him from consideration for their head-coaching vacancy “because of his decision to file this action and speak publicly about systemic discrimination in the NFL.” .

The amended complaint was filed in the Southern District of New York. It calls for, among other things, greater transparency in NFL hiring, incentives to hire black coaches and greater visibility for black assistant coaches.

Lawyers say Wilks was discriminated against as a “bridge trainer” who was “not given any meaningful opportunity to succeed.” Wilks went 3-13 in one season with Arizona before being fired and replaced by Kliff Kingsbury. The attorneys wrote that while Kingsbury has been successful, “Mr. Wilks, had he been given the same opportunity that was given to Mr. Kingsbury, surely he too would have been successful.”

“When Coach Flores filed this action, I knew I owed it to myself, to all black NFL coaches and would-be coaches, to support him,” Wilks said in a statement released by his attorneys. “This lawsuit has shed more important light on an issue that we all know exists, but that very few are willing to tackle. Black coaches and candidates should have exactly the same ability to get and stay 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 for racial equality in the NFL is realized.”

Wilks returned to the NFL this year as the passing coordinator and secondary coach for the Carolina Panthers after spending one season as defensive coordinator at the University of Missouri.

Horton was the defensive coordinator for the Titans in 2014-15 and was interviewed for the team’s head coaching job. Lawyers said the interview was a “completely bogus interview conducted solely to comply with the Rooney Rule and 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 coach for the final nine games of the 2015 season, said in a 2020 podcast that Titans owners told him he would get the job before completing 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 things he regretted during his career. The allegations have gained new relevance since Flores filed a lawsuit against him in February, alleging that 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 of everyone in this business,” Mularkey said on the podcast. “It’s a very cutthroat business and many will tell you that. … At one point when I was in Tennessee, I allowed myself to be involved in something that I regret and still regret. But the property there, Amy Adams Strunk and her family entered and they told me I was going to be the head coach in 2016 before they went through the Rooney Rule. So I sat there knowing I was the head coach in 2016 as they went through that bogus hiring process. Knowing a lot of the coaches that they were interviewing, knowing how much they prepared to go through those interviews, knowing that all they could do and they had no chance of getting that job. Actually, the general manager, Jon Robinson, was in the interview with me. No I had no idea why I was interviewing — that I already had the job. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I did that. It wasn’t the way to do it.”

ESPN learned of the interview, which was not widely circulated at the time, as part of reporting on issues raised by Flores’ lawsuit and asked Mularkey for comment before filing the amended lawsuit. Mularkey was fired by the Titans in 2017 after he went 9-7 in consecutive seasons and lost to the New England Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs.

“I think they have the truth and what they need,” Mularkey told ESPN via email. “I prefer not to comment further.”

The Titans, in a statement to ESPN issued before the lawsuit was filed, questioned 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 coaching 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 considering all four candidates after completing interviews.”

Two minority candidates who were finalists for the Titans job in 2016, Teryl Austin and Horton, did not respond to repeated requests for interviews from ESPN before the lawsuit was filed. 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.

When contacted by ESPN before the lawsuit was filed, ESPN said it was not aware of Mularkey’s comments before being asked about them.

“I did a lot of internal research and it never made it to the NFL,” said Brian McCarthy, the NFL’s vice president of communications. “We weren’t aware of this as a problem.”

“I am proud to stand with Coach Flores and Coach Wilks in fighting the systemic discrimination that has plagued the NFL for far too long,” Horton said in a statement released by his attorneys. “When I learned from Coach Mularkey’s statements that my head coaching interview with the Titans was a sham, I was devastated and humiliated. By joining this case, I hope to turn that experience into something positive and make lasting change and create true equality of opportunity in the future.”

In the amended lawsuit, Flores’ attorneys write that it was widely reported on Feb. 4 that the Texans had narrowed their head-coaching candidates to Flores, Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon and Josh McCown. After it was announced that Gannon, who is white, was no longer under consideration, the decision fell to either Flores or McCown, who is also white and has no NFL coaching experience.

The complaint states that “the Texans were legitimately concerned that if they hired Mr. McCown instead of Mr. Flores, it would reinforce Mr. Flores’s accusations of systemic discrimination against black candidates, particularly given that the team had just fired coach Black boss David Culley after just one season As such, later on the same day it was announced that the Texans had narrowed their search to just two candidates, it was also announced that the team had decided to give an initial interview to his own coach Culley’s defensive coordinator, Lovie Smith, for the head coaching job.

The Texans eventually hired Smith, who is also 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’s “troubling” that Flores was overlooked because he filed the lawsuit for him.

The amended lawsuit also amplifies allegations that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross offered Flores $100,000 for each loss during the 2019 season — his first as head coach — in an attempt to “fail” to strengthen the Dolphins draft pick value. He alleges that Flores sent a memo on December 4, 2019, to general manager Chris Grier, executive director 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 team ownership and senior management.”

Flores’ attorneys said the NFL has a copy of that memo.

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 provide expert, outside perspective on industry best practices and assess the league’s and clubs’ diversity, equity and inclusion strategies and initiatives, including all hiring processes, policies and procedures, with a primary focus on senior coaching and front office staff positions.

“While the NFL can hire outside consultants, make minor rule changes, and pander to various interest groups, real and lasting change can only be achieved through the appointment of a court-ordered monitor, as the NFL has proven time and time again that it is incapable of self-policing,” attorneys Douglas H. Wigdor and John Elefterakis said in a statement.

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