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NFL Lawsuit Reveals the Racial Power Structures that Still Dominate Black Performance

On Tuesday February 1, former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores filed a class action lawsuit against three NFL teams for discrimination in hiring practices and raising larger questions about the role of white power structures in furthering racism. Flores was fired by Dolphins owner Stephen Ross on January 10, 2022, despite leading the Dolphins in their first back-to-back winning seasons since 2003. Flores claims that Ross attempted to bribe him to lose games throughout the season to secure a better draft position and orchestrated a meeting with a “prominent quarterback” against Flores’ wishes. As a result of refusing to follow Ross’ wishes, Flores alleges that he was treated as “someone who was noncompliant and difficult to work with.” Insinuating that Flores was disobedient and “noncompliant” with the wishes of the white owners has compelling parallels to the history of using racial tropes to systematically push Black people out of positions of authority. The role of the team owner in dictating how free the coach is to make decisions, spend his time, or disagree with white management without fear of retribution is reminiscent of the power of whiteness in the NFL. Within the larger context of a predominantly white-managed league, Flores is one case study of many that displays the role of race in decision-making, management, and exploitation in sports. 

White-run institutions such as the NFL, whose administrative structure has been nearly all-white since its inception in 1920, are able to capitalize on the diversity of their players in order to mask the institutional racism embedded within the organization. With Flores’ absence from the league, there are only two Black head coaches remaining in the NFL, in contrast to 30 white head coaches. This disparity extends beyond the head coaching positions to general administrative hiring practices: between February 2019 and February 2020 the NFL filled 31 open positions for head coaches, offensive coordinators, defensive coordinators, and general managers. Out of these 31 open positions, 24 of them, 77.4%, went to white men. 

This white majority in general administration extends further, most importantly even, to team owners, who are nearly all white. There is only one majority owner of an NFL team that is not white,  Jacksonville Jaguars’ owner Shahid Kahn, a Pakistani-American. The dynamics of majority white owners and white-run teams, staffed by white coaches and administrators, who dictate the actions and commodify the performance of majority Black men, indicate that the threshold for Black success rarely extends beyond athletic performance in professional sports. When Black individuals attempt to fill managerial roles, there is a distinct glass ceiling that keeps white people in and Black people out.

Hiding behind the misleading statistic that 70% of NFL players are Black, white fans of the NFL milk visibility politics as indicative of true representation and ignore the lack of diversity in coaching, staffing, and ownership, in addition to the drastic inequity in financial contracts. Out of a list of the 10 highest paid NFL players as of September 2021, all ten were quarterbacks; despite comprising 70% of players, Black athletes comprise only 17% of quarterbacks. These larger inequities in salary and representation exist behind the recognizable names and faces of extremely successful Black football players. Therefore, it’s not enough to have Black players make up the majority of NFL players, or a few Black coaches, when the entire structure of the organization is built to keep Black people in limited roles and financial standings. Flores and other Black individuals who have tried to climb their way to managerial or ownership positions are attempting to break these existing barriers, yet they are met with animosity from those who want to keep these positions predominantly white. 

The ability of white coaches and owners to commodify Black athletes and their performance for financial gain is only made possible through the strong foundation of whiteness upon which professional sports rests. The NFL brought in a total of $12.2 billion in revenue in 2020, which is a drop from $15.26 billion in 2019. This exorbitant amount of money would not be possible without Black athletes. 

Capitalizing upon the entertainment value of Black players, the white-run NFL sells their jerseys, their likeness, their talent, and their labor in a repeated cycle that still limits Black mobility to rise to the higher echelons of the league. By restricting positions of power—whether in coaching, in ownership, or in the organization—the NFL can tell their majority white fan base that racism disappeared with Russell Wilson’s meteoric rise or Cam Newton’s success as a quarterback, while still retaining white control over Black bodies. 

 Additionally, the exploitation of Black performance was brought to bear by Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, who have taken time to focus on their mental health despite the pressure to perform. The backlash that both Biles and Osaka received for taking a break from performing is indicative of the underlying power structure that demands black performative labor in exchange for granting reputational and financial success. 

Similarly, the talent and labor of iconic Black musicians such as Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston was used by white managers and audiences to further their own profit and enjoyment. Stevie Wonder has a net worth of just $110 million, despite being in the spotlight for decades. Whitney Houston died $20 million in debt to Sony records despite selling over 200 million albums in her lifetime. Signed by largely white record companies that controlled Black artists through financial means, promises of fame, and legal contracts, both Wonder and Houston were used by white executives to bring in revenue, then discarded once their worth ran out. 

Research conducted by The University of Southern California (USC)’s Annenberg Institute found that across 119 companies in​ the music business, 86% of executives were white men. Despite people of color making up 47% of the credited artists behind the top 900 pop songs since 2012, just 19.8% of executives were from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. Only 7.5% of those executives were Black. The dearth of Black representation in executive spaces is not accidental. By reinforcing this power structure that enables white male control over Black production and labor, the entertainment industry furthers the racial inequality in positions of executive power. 

In order to truly change the narrative and reclaim Black labor and profit, Black people need to be in the room where decisions were made. Not only do they need to sit at the table, but they must make up a proportional number of the people in charge. Until decisions over Black production are made by Black people, the cycle of inequality in the entertainment industry will continue to repeat itself, lining the pockets of white executives at the expense of Black performers. These structural issues are larger than football or the entertainment industry and prompt larger questions of how to reclaim Black agency and possession over our own work and talents. 

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