The NFL consists of 32 businesses but ultimately it’s one business. And this makes non-players who want to continue to pursue a career in pro football very leery about pursuing legal claims against one team, because this can preemptively burn bridges to the other 31.
That sort of retaliation is wrong, and illegal. While retaliation may enhance or expand existing legal claims, it will keep a head coach or assistant coach or any other team employee whose skills are tied only to football from finding a job with another NFL team.
As a result, potential legal claims that could be made by coaches who are fired from or passed over for jobs routinely aren’t, given the possibility that filing a lawsuit against one team will slam the door on a coach’s career with any NFL team. And it’s not just race that has been a problem for the NFL; concerns of age discrimination have percolated over the years, too. Still, no one has taken action.
Discrimination cases usually are very difficult to prove. Such claims require skillful lawyering that pushes past obvious and predictable denials from defense witnesses to uncover subtle bias (often through different standards applied to different employees), given that modern businesses know not to leave smoking guns of discrimination evidence laying around. That fact, coupled with the likely inability to find work with another NFL team, has kept the league’s teams (and the league itself) from ever facing a discrimination lawsuit from a coach.
The proposed changes to the Rooney Rule may change that. Multiple sources have expressed to PFT a concern that a draft-standing incentive to hire a minority coach or G.M. could be the tipping point that prompts a non-minority coach or G.M. who ends up without a job that goes to a minority candidate to pull the pin on a litigation grenade.
The most likely plaintiff would be an older coach or front-office executive, who already was closing in on calling it a career. Another candidate to sue would be a coach who decides to ditch the NFL for good, heading to the college game for the balance of his time left in the sport.
Regardless of who it may be, the stew of risks and rewards that must be considered before filing a lawsuit becomes greatly enhanced by a policy that makes race a clear factor in the hiring of coaches and General Managers. Thus, the revised policy (if passed) already has sparked concern that litigation is inevitable.
The broader question, of course, is whether the revised policy would allow a non-minority coach or G.M. to prove discrimination. The league surely believes the proposed rule is fine. An upcoming item at PFT will take a closer look at the legal side of using a specific reward to entice teams to hire minority coaches and General Managers.