The sky over Los Angeles is forecast to be clear and blue and the temperature around 30C when the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams run out for Super Bowl LVI on Sunday. It should be a chance for the NFL to celebrate weathering Covid‑19 with television ratings up 10% from 2020, as well as an opportunity to pay tribute to the greatest Super Bowl champion of all time, Tom Brady, who has announced his retirement after seven championships and 10 trips to the big game.
But this is the NFL, which often appears closer to a soap opera than a sports league. On the day Brady signalled the end of his career, the league duly delivered its latest plot twist. As is often the case in the league and the US as a whole, it had much to do with race and inequality: Brian Flores, the former head coach of the Miami Dolphins, filed a lawsuit claiming the league “is racially segregated and is managed much like a plantation”.
Flores, who is Black, was fired by the Dolphins in January despite the team posting a second straight winning season for the first time since 2003. The lack of minority head coaches in a league with nearly 70% of players are Black has long been a point of criticism.
The NFL’s Rooney rule, which states that teams must interview at least one minority candidate for major coaching vacancies, has done little to correct that deficiency. When the rule was introduced there were three Black head coaches in the NFL; on the day Flores filed the lawsuit there was one.
The NFL quickly denied that its multibillion annual revenue is built on plantation dynamics – that is, rich white men profiting from the bodies of young Black men. But at his annual pre-Super Bowl address the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, admitted work needs to be done. “We have to continue to look and find and step back and say: ‘We’re not doing a good enough job here.’ We need to find better solutions and better outcomes.
“Let’s find more effective policies. Let’s make sure everyone understands. Let’s make sure that we’re looking at diversity and incentivizing that for everybody in our building.”
The problem is that no one is quite sure what the solution is. Goodell cannot tell the ultra-rich owners – the “poorest” of whom is worth a mere $500m – who to employ. The owners know money will continue to roll in regardless of who coaches their teams.
Flores’s lawsuit contained another barb, though. He alleges he was offered bonuses to lose games in order to secure higher picks in the NFL draft, something the Dolphins vigorously deny. It is an open secret teams often fail to field competitive rosters as they rebuild. But offering coaches money to lose is a different story and, if proven to be true, would hit the integrity of a league that has been tarnished by players’ brain trauma and its handling of the anthem protests started by Colin Kaepernick.
These mostly self-inflicted problems distract from what will be an intriguing match. The home town Rams, packed with stars on offense and defense, are the slight favourites in the $5bn SoFi Stadium, a beautiful arena that will also host the opening ceremony of the 2028 Olympics. The Bengals are in their first Super Bowl for 33 years and were the worst team in the NFL two seasons ago. Few outside Cincinnati thought they would beat the talented Kansas City Chiefs to reach the Super Bowl, but they did so thanks to a superb performance from their defense and the cool head of their 25-year-old quarterback Joe Burrow, who has drawn early comparisons to Brady.
Neither man has been the fastest or strongest player on the field but they find a way to win and deliver at the right time. Happily for their bank balances, they share the swagger and clean-cut good looks that sponsors find irresistible.
It is unlikely Burrow will ever get anywhere near Brady’s record seven Super Bowl titles. But an upset win would be a good start – and a nice distraction for the NFL from its troubles.