MIAMI, Aug. 8 (UPI) -- The Miami Dolphins are the only team in the NFL with a black head coach-general manager duo -- Brian Flores and Chris Grier. And that has inspired some of the franchise's best players.
"I'm happy to be a part of a team that realizes the importance of [those selections], and obviously now we have to mirror that with going out there and winning games and making everybody know that that was the right decision to make," Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake told UPI.
Flores might be shouldered with the most responsibility this year at Miami Dolphins training camp. The first-year head coach got the job in February, after spending 15 years with the New England Patriots.
The son of Honduran immigrants, Flores was one of eight coaches hired for the 2019 season, but the only minority candidate to receive a head coaching job.
"I know of many [other qualified minority candidates]," Flores said. "We have some on this staff -- minority coaches who have leadership abilities, are smart, hard-working. They have all the qualities I feel are what you need to be a leader, a head coach, coordinators.
"That's my opinion on it, as someone who has gone through the interview process and been in this role, even for a short time."
The three black coaches remaining in the 32-team league this coming season are tied with 2013 for the fewest since the adoption of the Rooney Rule in 2003. Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who is Latino, is the only other minority coach in the league.
The Rooney Rule requires every team with a head coaching vacancy to interview at least one or more diverse candidates. More than 20 franchises have hired minority head coaches in the Rooney Rule era.
Five of the eight coaches fired since last season are black. At the start of the 2018 season, four minority general managers or people performing general manager duties were in place, down from six in 2017 and five in 2016.
Three other teams have had a black head coach and black general manager at the same time before the Dolphins' duo of Flores and Grier.
The Dolphins also began the off-season with a black assistant coach (Caldwell) and defensive coordinator (Patrick Graham). Grier is the only black general manager in the NFL, matching the lowest number since 2002, when the Baltimore Ravens' Ozzie Newsome broke the general manager color barrier. The NFL had seven black general managers at the end of the 2016 season.
"It's a great joy that we have a black general manager and head coach, Dolphins Pro Bowl cornerback Xavien Howard said. "They play a lot of roles and it's great to see these guys in the positions they are in. "It inspires a lot of people and makes people understand that anything can happen."
Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills said seeing Flores and Grier in their positions is "inspiring on another level."
Stills has been one of several high-profile players who have protested social injustice and racial inequality for the past several seasons. He can still be seen kneeling on the sidelines during the national anthem before NFL games for those causes, following the practice inspired by Colin Kaepernick.
Stills also is a major activist, working with children and police in underserved communities with the the Miami Dolphins Football United Program and the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality. He is a three-time winner of the Dolphins' Nat Moore Community Service Award.
Stills had spoken with Flores about his dream of one day being an NFL coach or general manager after his playing career.
"It's like, 'Hey, one day I can be in those positions,'" Stills told UPI. "I sit down and talk to Flores and tell him 'I'm here to win.' I have dreams of doing what you're doing. I have dreams of doing what Chris is doing. I have dreams above and beyond.
"'Special' doesn't do it [justice]," Stills added. "For us, it's all about representation. You have a league with a majority of black players. For us, seeing a black coach, seeing a black general manager, it's something that we know we can strive to be there.
"For them to set that standard, especially for us to be a part of. it's something that as a player we want to make sure we are going above and beyond to have success to show we have the right people in place to do the job."
About 70 percent of the league's players are black, according to the Institute for Diversity And Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.
John Denney, 40, is the longest-tenured Dolphins player. The veteran long snapper has played for eight coaches since joining the team in 2005. He praised Flores for his knowledge of the game and said the coach's accountability will drive the team to be better.
"It's always awesome to part of change that is headed in a positive direction," Denney said of Flores.
Flores said he knows many qualified minority candidates who have not gotten head coaching jobs. None of them was hired to replace the likes of Marvin Lewis, Steve Wilks, Hue Jackson, Vance Joseph or Todd Bowles.
Wilks was the only minority head coach hired last off-season. He lost his job after one season and was replaced by Kliff Kingsbury, who has no NFL coaching experience and had a losing record (35-40) in six seasons before being fired by Texas Tech.
Broncos coach Vance Joseph was the only black first-time head coach hired in 2017. He lost his job after two seasons.
"I know there are guys out there I've been around that could do what I'm doing. Hopefully, those guys get that opportunity. I think it's coming," Flores said.
Checking the Box
The NFL expanded the Rooney Rule requirements in 2009 to include general managers and front office positions. It was expanded again in December, requiring clubs to interview at least one diverse candidate from the career development advisory panel list or a diverse candidate not currently employed by a club.
The December update also called from clubs to continue the best-practice recommendation of considering multiple diverse candidates and maintain complete records and furnish them upon the commissioner's request. It also called for the final decision-maker to be involved throughout the hiring process if that person is involved in the beginning of the process.
Still, there is concern teams around the league are checking a box and not adhering to the spirit of the rule.
Civil rights attorneys Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie Cochran issued a report in 2002, revealing black NFL coaches were held to a higher standard than their white counterparts and were consequently denied a fair chance to compete for head coaching jobs. The attorneys threatened to sue the league and are credited with inspiring the Rooney Rule.
Mehri also co-founded the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a not-for-profit dedicated to diversity in the NFL coaching, scouting and front office ranks. The alliance networks and mentors candidates for jobs in the league, while also encouraging the league to adopt rules and practices fostering diversity in the NFL and educating team owners and managers on the availability of minority candidates. The alliance membership base is mostly current NFL coaches and executives.
"Those who have concerns about the ownership side of the equation are right," said Rod Graves, the alliance's new executive director. "I do think owners have to take the question of diversity seriously.
"They have to embrace it and I believe we will do so," Graves said. "Owners recognize that diversity is an issue. I do believe the consensus has to be that owners will make this a part of their business plan and they will do it because it's good for the game. It's good for business. It's good for the fans."
Graves said the Rooney Rule allowed minority candidates to get to the table when they couldn't obtain coach interviews in the past. He was the general manager for the Chicago Bears and Cardinals and worked in the New York Jets front office before joining the league's front office in 2015.
He also made history with former Cardinals coach Dennis Green, when they were the NFL's first black coach and general manager duo.
"We have a concern teams are checking the box and not really following through on the essence of giving a real opportunity to those who are prepared," Graves said.
Another recent example of concern for the alliance came after the Houston Texans interviewed two black candidates for their open general manager job, but chose not to hire either candidate. The Texans also tried to hire the Patriots' Nick Caserio for the job, but he could not get out of his contract.
"I have not heard definitively that they have abandoned their process of replacing their general manager, but if they have, it is a concern," Graves said. "It is a concern that two outstanding candidates, Martin Mayhew and Ray Farmer, were not part of their alternative plan even if, in fact, they had an initial option of looking at Nick Caserio first.
"I understand the reasons why Nick may have been appealing, but through my own experience, we've always gone into interviews with a Plan B."
The Fritz Pollard Alliance was instrumental for Flores landing his current role. The Dolphins coach considers former alliance executive director John Wooten a friend and one of his mentors.
"He was great to me and I think that that's something that's near and dear to my heart," Flores said at his introductory news conference. "I think there's a lot of very capable coaches in this league. and whatever I can do to help those guys get an opportunity, I'm all for it."
In January, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the league doesn't look at the success or failure of the Rooney Rule in one-year increments.
First black NFL team owner?
Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan (Pakistani American) and Buffalo Bills co-owner Kim Pegula (Asian American) are the only minority owners in the NFL. There has never been a black team owner in NFL history.
The alliance is trying to identify and develop more minority candidates for NFL team ownership. Mehri said it carefully monitored the last owner selection process for the Carolina Panthers. David Tepper purchased the team in 2018 for $2.3 billion, after being unanimously approved by NFL owners. Rapper Sean "Diddy" Combs had considered buying the team.
"Right now, there are very few [minority owners] and the few are kinda at the 1 percent level," Mehri said. "We want to break that barrier over time. It's something we've been studying and it's something I put in my portfolio to try to move forward in the coming months and years.
"It wont be easy. We know the societal barriers that are out there. It's a daunting task but it's something we see as attainable, and we are going to make that a point of emphasis."
Mehri said more minority owners in the NFL would have a "massive impact" on the league when it comes to increased diversity at all levels.
"The first of anything, especially a black person coming in that type of area would be monumental, just because of the fact that you look around and see the discrepancy there," Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake said.
Drake credits Stephen Ross, the Dolphins team owner, with helping to put players in a better position to succeed on and off the field. The billionaire philanthropist founded the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality in 2015. The national nonprofit educates and empowers the sports community to eliminate racial discrimination, champion social justice and improve race relations.
"Sports brings together athletes, coaches and fans of all races, uniting us with shared experiences and common goals that allow us to transcend our differences," Ross said on the initiative's website.
"If there is any place where there is real equality, it's sports. The sports community is uniquely positioned and empowered to break down barriers, and provides us with a vast platform in which to begin open conversations, impact youth and be an effective catalyst for social progress."
The initiative's board of directors includes Goodell, among other current and former league commissioners.
Denney has spent time with Ross during multiple off-seasons and worked with the owner's charity and fundraising events. He called his time with under Ross as a Dolphins player a "great experience."
"With the [Dolphins'] hiring of a black head coach and GM, the multitude of players on this team from different walks of life and the players protesting on the team in the past and things of that sort, I feel like that's the way of the world now," Drake said.
"We use sports as a leverage to help promote positivity in the world. We want to continue to do that and be at the forefront of that," he said.