A federal judge agreed to send a lawsuit over allegedly racist hiring practices by the National Football League to secret arbitration, even though she candidly anticipated “biased adjudication” of the Black coaches’ claims.
In a 30-page ruling, the judge wouldn’t give the NFL its wish without first ripping the league about the “unflattering spotlight” cast on it by the lawsuit.
“Although the clear majority of professional football players are Black, only a tiny percentage of coaches are Black,” U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni wrote. “In 2002, to much hoopla, the NFL announced that it was going to do something about the paucity of Black coaches. Its solution was to adopt the so-called ‘Rooney Rule.’ The Rooney Rule as originally adopted required any NFL team looking to hire a head coach to interview at least one minority candidate.”
Caproni noted that the federal lawsuit filed by former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores portrays the Rooney Rule as a “cruel sham.”
Flores filed the lawsuit with two other Black coach applicants: Arizona Cardinals bridge coach Steve Wilks, who says he was wrongfully terminated, and Ray Horton, the Tennessee Titans’ defensive coordinator who says the team passed him over for a white candidate.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell would preside over any arbitration, an arrangement that the plaintiffs say risks a “biased” result. They point to the NFL’s pointed statement after the three men filed the lawsuit that their claims are “without merit.”
Judge Caproni agreed—but ruled her hands were tied.
“The Court acknowledges that this structure creates a risk of biased adjudication and that the NFL statement on the day the case was filed is worrisome,” she wrote. “Plaintiffs’ descriptions of their experiences of racial discrimination — which allegedly are only the most recent chapter in the NFL’s long history of systematic discrimination toward Black players, coaches, and managers — are incredibly troubling. […] Given the number of Black men who play and coach football, it is difficult to understand how it could be that, at the time Plaintiffs initiated this lawsuit, ‘the NFL had only one Black Head Coach.'”
“Nevertheless, the FAA cautions against judicial intervention at this early stage when Plaintiffs have, as here, agreed to a particular arbitration structure, including a specific arbitrator,” she said. “Courts must avoid presupposing that the selected arbitrator will not serve as a conscientious and impartial arbitrator.”
There is a solution, however, Caproni said.
“If the NFL Commissioner is, indeed, improperly biased, and that bias prevents him from fairly adjudicating Plaintiffs’ claims, Plaintiffs have a recourse: this Court retains the authority to review the Commissioner’s decision and to vacate the Commissioner’s award,” the ruling states.
Read the ruling here.
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