A footnote toward progress: Former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores is suing the NFL for racial discrimination. I hope some research I did helps him win.

(A screen grab of the Flores suit and our mention in a footnote.)

After being led down the primrose path of several “sham” interviews, Former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores filed suit against the National Football League, alleging  discriminatory hiring practices. The suit says that teams are essentially paying lip service to the “Rooney Rule,” which requires any team that wants to hire a coach to interview at least one person of color as a candidate.

The rule was supposed to push teams to broaden their hiring pools and increase diversity in the league. Flores’ suit says it literally does the exact opposite, with teams looking for the nearest Black guy to interview before running off to give some unqualified white imbecile a boatload of cash. It takes a lot of courage to call out a juggernaut like the NFL, so there are plenty reasons to applaud this move.

I’m clapping a little extra for a selfish reason: The suit cited some research I did with one of my former master’s students.

Back in my Ball State days, I tended to push my master’s students to a) do a thesis instead of a professional project and b) convince them to try to get it published once they had finished it. In many cases, I failed at both ends of this, mainly because, “That’s way too much work. Besides, nobody’s ever gonna read a research paper I write.”

One person I did manage to convince was Eugenio Mercurio, who came to me with an idea for a study about how Black and white quarterbacks were discussed in pre-draft literature. We worked on getting his thesis done on that topic, and it had some interesting info in there, but not enough to really publish as it stood.

I told him, “Look, this isn’t my field at all, but if you work on the literature end of it, I can really beef up the data analysis and maybe it goes somewhere.” He agreed and we put together a conference paper we called “Roughing the Passer,” a wordplay on the football penalty for personal foul against the quarterback.

The findings were both solid and yet basic: We found that white quarterbacks were stereotyped as having fewer physical skills than Black quarterbacks, but that they made up for it with intelligence, leadership and hard work. Black quarterbacks were stereotyped as being more physically talented than white quarterbacks, primarily due to God-given gifts. Also, the draft lit said they tended to make a lot of dumb mistakes on the field, thus perpetuating the stereotype of race-based intellectual inferiority.

After the conference, we pounded the paper into something we thought would be serviceable. We got some great feedback from the folks at the Howard Journal of Communication, one of the best journals on media and race in the country. After some revising and resubmitting, the paper got published and we were both thrilled. Still, it wasn’t like we wrote Harry Potter or something. We figured six academics would like it, six would hate it and everyone else would ignore it.

After his time at Ball State, Eugenio went on and got a professional job, and I kept Peter Panning my life away at various universities. As such, I’ve become kind of the keeper of the fire on this paper. I’ve gotten a number of emails and calls on this.

In 2016, for example, when the Panthers played the Broncos in the Super Bowl, people started asking for that paper quite a bit. I noticed a number of “Cam vs. Peyton” papers that year, as the narrative played out once again that Manning made it on guts and smarts while Cam just ran around making plays as a “physical specimen.”

About a week ago, I got an email from a master’s student who wanted to interview me about the issues of racial discrimination as they related to the NFL. I told her I am in no way an expert on a topic that big and important, but I’m always happy to talk about the paper itself and what we found. I wondered why she found that paper and asked me about this topic in this way.

Once I did some digging around, I found that Flores’ suit cited the paper. In that portion of the suit, Flores’ attorneys laid out the long, sad history of how the NFL has dragged its feet on anything resembling racial progress. It covered everything from slow integration of teams to the length of time it took to hire the first Black coach in the league. In the middle of all that is our statement about racism at the quarterback position.

I have to admit, that was a weird moment for me. It was like, “Oh man… normal people are now reading this stuff instead of just the same six research nerds who read studies like this. God alone knows what they’re going to think.”

I don’t know how this suit is going to turn out or what Flores will end up with, but at the very least, I now have a good answer when people ask, “Why do you bother doing random research papers?”

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