Race and social justice took center stage during the NFL's opening weekend, when protests during the anthem, unifying T-shirts and decals honoring victims of police brutality were methods players and coaches used to make their voices heard.
Add on that an NFL-record 10 Black quarterbacks started Week 1.
Yet it was the Miami Dolphins, with coach Brian Flores' on-camera support, who made perhaps the most memorable statement before the games began. They released a video in which 18 players called out the NFL's "fluff" reaction and team owners' lack of action in impacting real change.
It was the conviction of the Dolphins' message, not their decision to stay in the locker room during the playing of the national anthem and "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," that stood out.
NFL player activism came to the fore in 2016 when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first sat on the bench and then took a knee during the anthem in protest of racial injustice. Now in 2020, after the killings of Black men and women such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, there is a new wave of activism among athletes. It provides a backdrop to the continued call for the NFL and its teams to do more for diversity and inclusion.
Headed by Flores and Chris Grier, the NFL's only Black coach and Black general manager duo, the Dolphins are a model for hiring diverse and inclusive leadership while cultivating the pipeline of talent on the football and the business side.
"Unquestionably, the Dolphins have been one of the leaders and, in my opinion, the foremost leader in terms of diversity," said Rod Graves, a Black man and chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a group that encourages and assists the NFL in equal opportunity practices.
"This is an organization that is putting their money where their mouth is. They aren't just talking about diversity. They have a plan and strategy in effect. That's a lot more than I can say about most NFL teams."
Diversity isn't solely about hiring minorities for key positions. It means being inclusive of different races, ethnicities, genders, ages, religions, disabilities and sexual orientations with differences in education, personalities, skill sets, experiences and knowledge bases.
Black players represent 70% of the league, so inclusion, in particular, is a long-standing issue. The NFL has five Black men filling its 61 head coach and general manager roles. (New England, Houston and Washington have coaches functioning as GMs.) There is one Black president, Washington's Jason Wright, and none in ownership.
The Dolphins have focused on bypassing the NFL's sometimes flawed hiring criteria in an effort to reach an inclusive pool of qualified candidates, and through that process the franchise serves as a model for other NFL teams and their owners.
Changing the criteria in coaching searches
In January 2019, the Dolphins were looking for a head coach.
The hiring trend among NFL front offices was finding the "next Sean McVay" -- leading most to seek an offensive-minded quarterback guru, such as the Los Angeles Rams coach, who is white. Miami had a similar mindset when it hired former coach Adam Gase, also white and now the New York Jets coach, over finalist Anthony Lynn, a Black longtime running backs coach who is now leading the Los Angeles Chargers, in 2016.
But the Dolphins' process for hiring was altered in 2019. A member of the brain trust watched 100 media interview clips featuring 30 to 40 coaches, and from those clips, Miami then selected six candidates (three Black, three white) to interview.
A New England Patriots assistant at the time, Flores, 39, had one year of experience as a coordinator and defensive coach. The Dolphins saw potential in Flores' leadership qualities, so much so that he got the first interview and checked all the boxes.
"I want the best leaders. If you want to have the best, you have to have it open. Once you start restricting yourself, you don't always have the opportunity to get the best," Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said. "It doesn't matter the color of their skin, where they are from or what their gender is. People want to know they get a fair chance and opportunity."
That hit home for Bill Polian, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and a longtime general manager, who made the only consecutive Black head-coaching hires in NFL history with Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell.
"Had I not worked with those men and got to know them as people, I would not have had the same exalted opinion of them. It may not have worked out the same. It helps when you get to know people as people instead of names on pages," Polian said.
Seven of Dungy's assistants have become head coaches, including five minority coaches (Caldwell, Herm Edwards, Lovie Smith, Mike Tomlin and Leslie Frazier). Dungy's success paved the way for a generation of minority men to become head coaches, including Flores.
"I'm certain people will look to the Dolphins at some point and say this is a model for success," Graves said. "Some have to be motivated by quantitative evidence and others will do it because they believe it is right. The Dolphins are doing it because they believe it is right and they believe it will be successful, but they have set themselves up as a beacon for whatever needs to be proved in terms of the effects of diversity."
Dolphins' work isn't just at the top
It's April 2020 and Flores wears a big smile when exchanging secret handshakes with his young sons, Miles and Maxwell, in front of cameras planted in his home for the virtual NFL draft. And we watch his kids beam with joy as they converse with Miami's first-round pick, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
Those scenes with the Flores family showed the relatable nature of coaches and GMs, whose attributes are often hidden from fans. A big takeaway from the virtual draft, which had a NFL-record 55 million viewers, was seeing two Black men, Flores and Grier, as the faces of a NFL franchise; a sight to see, considering four NFL teams have a Black head coach or general manager (the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, Chargers and Dolphins).
"What America saw for three days was the visual of what this industry's leadership looks like, the small number of coaches and individuals in supervisory roles who are men of color," said NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, a Black man. "More owners have to be deliberate and unapologetic, like the Dolphins, about putting words into action in areas of Black inclusion."
Flores and Grier are the fourth Black coach and GM duo in league history, and Dolphins players say they enjoy being somewhat of an outlier.
"That's something very unique, first off, because you don't get that too often around the NFL," said Tagovailoa, who is Samoan. "It speaks volumes to the Dolphins' organization, from the top down, that whoever can get the job done for us, that's who we are going to go with."
Dolphins receiver Jakeem Grant, who is Black, added: "It shows that Black people can reach that level of success, too."
The Miami franchise has made strides in diverse hiring that is in line with what the NFL's Rooney Rule was intended to do. The Rooney Rule, enacted in 2003 but amended in 2020, requires teams to interview at least two external minority candidates for any vacant head-coaching job and at least one external minority candidate for any vacant offensive, defensive or special-teams coordinator job.
"You have owners who are only going to go with certain people. ... Hopefully, we'll get more people like [Ross] who will look at everyone, and not just a small segment who they think are qualified," Grier told The Undefeated in 2019.
The Dolphins' work isn't just at the top. Of Miami's 17 player personnel members, 11 are minorities or women, not including Grier. That group includes assistant general manager Marvin Allen and senior personnel executive Reggie McKenzie, who are Black.
Also, Miami led the NFL with 15 Bill Walsh Diversity coaching fellowship hires in 2019. The team hired one of its fellows -- a Black man, Gerald Alexander -- as defensive backs coach this offseason. Five of the 20 coaches on Flores' staff are Black, not including Flores.
On the business side, the Dolphins have a leadership development program where four people -- most recently three women and a Black man -- rotate working throughout the organization every three months. This summer, the team formed a diversity and inclusion council as well as a women's network.
Polian has three tips on inclusivity: Teams need to get recommendations to owners quickly, before agents fill the pool with "hot candidates." Franchises need to "identify, mentor and create a path of growth for young coaches and personnel people who have a chance to be general managers." Finally, Polian says "a concerted effort to recruit and hire minorities at entry-level positions" must be made.
The Dolphins have been intentional in all three categories.
Conflict, race and Dolphins' Ross
In many ways, 2020 has been defined by the coronavirus pandemic and social unrest. Athletes are challenging league owners to do more with their power, and not just their money, to effect change.
Ross, who is a billionaire real-estate developer, founded RISE, a nonprofit organization committed to fighting racism, in 2015, and he has committed $30 million to it (including $13 million this year). The Dolphins Football Unites program, overseen by a Black senior vice president, Jason Jenkins, has been an NFL leader in volunteering time and impacting underprivileged communities. The team's Food Relief Program, with support from Ross, provides 1,000 meals daily to families in need, much of it from minority-owned restaurants.
Still, there are questions and conflict about Ross, 80, as an example in this evolving fight against systemic racism, and they center on his relationship and financial support of President Donald Trump.
Ross drew widespread criticism in August 2019, including from then-Dolphins receiver Kenny Stills, who is now with the Houston Texans, after hosting an up-to $250,000-a-plate fundraiser luncheon for Trump at his New York home. Stills said Ross can't "play both sides of this," having his RISE nonprofit committed to fighting racism while opening doors to Trump. Ross said he has been friends with Trump for 40 years, and while they agree on some things, "we strongly disagree on many others."
"Ross can get into rooms that I can't. [He] can convince people that I can't," Stills said. "He's had so much success in things he's spent his time focusing on. I can just imagine what he could do to create real change with all his power. Writing a check for $13 million is appreciated, but it isn't going to do it -- not in this country with this much corruption."
Stills was one of several players kneeling during the national anthem in September 2017 when Trump suggested that NFL owners "get that son of a b---- off the field right now," in reference to protesting players.
In August 2020, Ross reflected on the fundraiser, telling the New York Times he did it in hopes of raising money for New York and Metropolitan Transportation Authority after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo requested help, and "if I would have known the impact of what happened last year, would I have thought about it differently? Of course."
Disagreement over whether a person can support Trump while fighting against racism lingers.
"No impact at all. The proof is in the pudding. He made a personal decision," Vincent said of Ross' legacy. "He has decades, going back to my time, of inclusive efforts."
Arians stressing diversity on Bucs' coaching staff
Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians sits down with Kayna Whitworth to discuss the importance of having a diverse coaching staff.
Exposure to a deeper coaching pipeline
During the NFL's Quarterback Coaching Summit held via video conferencing in June 2020, roughly 85 participants listened to some brutal honesty from one white NFL owner.
"A lot of us have fallen into that trap of when you see that hot, young assistant playcaller -- the Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan -- and they have success, and you think you're going to find the next guy to fit right into that mold. I was probably guilty at some point in time of falling into that," New York Giants co-owner John Mara said. "Now, I look at a head coach as more of a CEO. ... I can't say I always looked at it that way."
The numbers show when NFL owners target offensive coordinators and quarterback coaches in a head-coaching search, the results skew toward white men. There are two minority offensive coordinators out of 29 (6.9%) and two minority QB coaches out of 28 (7.1%) in the league now. On the other side of the ball, there are 10 minority defensive coordinators out of 30 (33.3%).
Those numbers illustrate the difficulties minorities have climbing the ladder on the offensive side of the ball where the hiring buzzword is often "offensive genius," compared to the defensive side of the ball where the phrase of choice is often "leader of men."
During the most recent hiring cycle prior to the 2020 season -- one that came before the Rooney Rule required teams to interview two external minority candidates -- 11 teams interviewed 20 candidates for offensive coordinator positions. Only one minority candidate -- Colts quarterbacks coach Marcus Brady -- interviewed, and he was not offered a position. Based on internal NFL data, seven of the 11 teams with vacant offensive coordinator positions interviewed one candidate.
"We've got to convince teams to slow down when they're doing their hiring to make sure they are getting the deepest, best diverse pool they can get," Steelers owner Art Rooney II said.
Washington Football Team vice president of player development Doug Williams, the first Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, said at the summit: "The pipeline is full. The most important thing is to open up the valve."
Dolphins diversifying beyond race
It's February 2020 and the most important NFL combine in Dolphins history. Flores is sitting in on a NFL Women's Careers in Football Forum roundtable that is running a bit late. The Forum educates and connects female candidates who are trying to land jobs in the NFL.
Instead of running off to another meeting, Flores stays put to speak to candidates in a breakout session after the roundtable.
"It's that sort of dedication that is incredible to see. That's championing the cause. He prioritized that," said Sam Rapoport, the NFL director of football development and Forum creator. "I thank the Dolphins because they have been committed to supporting us at every angle."
The Dolphins have followed up that commitment with action by hiring two women -- Olivia Passy and Joyce Harrell -- as scouts in August. Passy participated in the 2019 Forum, building relationships with Dolphins scouts and coaches. Rapoport and Venessa Hutchinson, who helped run the Forum, praised Grier and Flores for being allies. Hutchinson said "the biggest issue we know about football is it's the old boys club" and the group's goal is to "bridge the gap" for clubs.
During Super Bowl LIV week in Miami, the Fritz Pollard Alliance awarded the Dolphins with the Paul J. Tagliabue Award for their noteworthy and bold commitment to advancing diversity in leadership.
"It's clear to me that Stephen Ross, Tom Garfinkel, Chris Grier, and Brian Flores have made diversity a priority." - Rod Graves— Miami Dolphins (@MiamiDolphins) January 28, 2020
On Thursday, we will be honored with the Paul J. Tagliabue Award from the @FritzPollard03 alliance. #FootballUnites
"[We try to] get out of our comfort zone as much as we can in any area and say let's go cast the net wide," Dolphins vice chairman and CEO Tom Garfinkel said after accepting the award. "We are deliberate and intentional with those things because it's the right thing to do. We try to do that because, frankly, we can all do better [at] fulfilling the American promise of equal opportunity."
On the business side, the Dolphins have women filling four of their nine vice president roles (44%) and Black men filling half of their senior vice president roles (three out of six).
Diversity is also represented on the field. Chan Gailey, 68, brings a viewpoint from a different generation, running the Dolphins' offense. Three years into retirement, Gailey was done with football. But Flores believed Gailey's teaching style and vast NFL experience made him perfect to lead.
On the other end of the age spectrum, Flores hired four position coaches this offseason directly from the college ranks (Alexander, QB coach Robby Brown, LB coach Anthony Campanile and outside LB coach Austin Clark). All are 40 years old or younger, none have run an NFL position group, and only one (Brown) has coached in the NFL before 2020. Also, Flores plucked another coach (Curt Kuntz, assistant DBs) directly from coaching high school football.
Grier, Flores 'understand what's at stake'
The Dolphins are not the only team that stands out in diverse hiring. Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians, who has a strong history of hiring and advocating for women and minority coaches, suggests head coaches need to be held more accountable in developing diverse options in the candidates who coach NFL teams.
Flores has that perspective, too, which leads us back to the rebuilding Dolphins, who are 1-2 this season. While the team paces the league as leaders in diverse hiring, the on-field success must follow in order for Miami to be considered an example of what all this intentionality and meticulous decision-making can do for a franchise.
"It's extremely important. The reality is the main factor, particularly with coaches, is wins and losses," Vincent said. "Chris and Brian understand they're drinking from wells from which they did not dig. They understand what's at stake."
Maybe that's a heavy burden to carry, but it's also reality, and one that the Dolphins' franchise, led by the league's only Black coach and GM duo, hopes to be a bridge for change.