Steve Wilks is first and foremost a football coach. And by all accounts, a quite capable one. He wanted to remain on as Carolina Panthers head coach after winning six of 12 games as the team’s post-Matt Rhule interim. That job ultimately went to Frank Reich, even though Wilks was a highly regarded finalist.
But Wilks is more than a football coach. He’s a complainant in an ongoing class action racial discrimination lawsuit. The defendants? The National Football League and their member clubs.
And while there is no evidence that the Panthers’ decision to hire the White candidate over the Black one was racially motivated, the move certainly doesn’t hurt his case.
Legal Impact of Carolina Panthers Passing Over Steve Wilks
Widgor Law, the firm that represents Wilks and Brian Flores in their suit against the NFL, released the following statement on Twitter shortly after the Panthers announced the hiring:
“We are shocked and disturbed that after the incredible job Coach Wilks did as the interim coach, including bringing the team back into Playoff contention and garnering the support of the players and fans, that he was passed over for the Head Coach position by David Tepper. There is a legitimate race problem in the NFL, and we can assure you that we will have more to say in the coming days.”
The Panthers surely knew there would be a PR blowback if they picked Reich over Wilks — particularly since the latter did a far better coaching job than the former in 2022.
Suspicions alone shouldn’t be enough to ensnare the Panthers into the broad suit. Proof is needed. Does Wilks have such proof? To be continued.
But at the very least, the Panthers’ decision is another potent data and talking point as Widgor builds the case that the NFL passes over minority candidates for head coaching positions because of the color of their skin.
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Wilks and Flores both believe they were dismissed unfairly as head coaches by the Cardinals and Dolphins, respectively, and are suing the league and several teams to right those alleged wrongs. Longtime NFL assistant Ray Horton is also a complainant in the suit.
Wilks spent one year as coach of the Cardinals — 2018 — but was fired after a 3-13 season.
He claims in the lawsuit that the Cardinals never gave him a real chance to succeed, instead hiring him as a “bridge coach” who was “not given any meaningful chance to succeed.” A common, valid complaint by Black coaches is the opportunities they do get are often inferior, and the leeway they’re given to succeed is far shorter than their White peers.
The one-year anniversary of the suit’s filing is coming up, but it remains apparently far from any sort of resolution. A judge in the southern district of New York has yet to rule whether the case will proceed in open court or, as the NFL prefers, in arbitration.
Ironically, Flores — currently a defensive assistant for the Pittsburgh Steelers — is a candidate for the Cardinals’ latest head coaching vacancy.