NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A former Black Tennessee Titans coaching candidate entered a class-action lawsuit against the team and the league for racial discrimination in its hiring practices.
Head coaching candidate Ray Horton — a former NFL football player for three decades — applied for the job after a jarring season in 2015.
Titans former head coach Ken Whisenhunt led the team to a 1-6 start. Management fired him midseason and placed tight end coach Mike Mularkey to the interim head coaching position. He went on to lead the team to one additional win that season. Horton previously helped coach the Titans as a defensive coordinator in the 2014 season.
Following that losing season, the Titans set out to hire a new head coach to lead the team, but it came with one stipulation for the interview process. Per the NFL hiring process under the Rooney Rule, the suit explained it required NFL teams to interview minority candidates. The rule emerged in 2002 when the league only had three Black head coaches.
Horton said in the lawsuit as a result of the rule, he was interviewed under a "sham process." The team requested him to get on a red-eye flight to Nashville to interview him for the head coaching position back in 2016 when the controlling owner of the Titans was in town.
"As Mr. Horton now understands, the rush to interview him was an orchestrated attempt to make it appear that the Titans had complied with the Rooney Rule and otherwise appear to have given an equal opportunity to Black candidates so the team could announce the pre-made decision to hire Mr. Mularkey as head coach," the lawsuit states.
With coaches Steve Wilks and Ray Horton joining Brian Flores in the race discrimination class action against the NFL and some of its teams, here are statements from the three of them pic.twitter.com/nmZ3GiFkfR— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) April 7, 2022
Horton said that during his interview process he was told by management they "gotta have him." Mularkey was hired shortly after despite that statement.
Later in 2020, Mularkey emerged on a podcast episode explaining his tenure in the NFL and some of his regrets about his career.
He was quoted as saying it was a cut-throat business and that one particular regret revolved around his time with the Titans.
"I allowed myself at one point when I was in Tennessee to get caught up in something I regret, and I still regret it, but the ownership there Amy Adams Strunk and her family came in and told me I was going to be the head coach in 2016, before they went through the Rooney rule," Mularkey said on the podcast Steelers Realm. "And so I sat there knowing I was the head coach in 2016, as they went through this fake hiring process knowing, knowing a lot of the coaches that they were interviewing, knowing how much they prepared to go through those interviews, knowing that everything they could do and they had no chance to get that job. And actually, the GM Jon Robinson, he was in an interview with me. He had no idea why he is interviewing me, that I have a job already. I regret it, cause I pride myself and my kids first to do the right thing, and I always said that to the players. And here I am the head guy not doing it, and I regretted it since then. It was the wrong thing to do. I am sorry I did that, but it was not the way to do that."
As a result of the suit, the Titans — in a statement to ESPN before the filing of the lawsuit — said in a statement it didn't agree with Mularkey's memories of the hiring process.
"Our 2016 head coach search was an open and competitive process during which we conducted in-person interviews with four candidates and followed all NFL rules," the statement said to ESPN. "The organization was undecided on its next head coach during the process and made its final decision after consideration of all four candidates following the completion of the interviews."
In a separate statement to NewsChannel 5, the Titans said they went through a rigorous process.
"Our 2016 head coach search was a thoughtful and competitive process fully in keeping with NFL guidelines and our own organizational values. We conducted detailed, in-person interviews with four talented individuals, two of whom were diverse candidates. No decision was made, and no decision was communicated, prior to the completion of all interviews. While we are proud of our commitment to diversity, we are dedicated to continued growth as an organization to foster diversity and inclusion in our workplace and community."
The lawsuit stated in its prayer for relief that the NFL appoint an independent authority for compliance, promote Black ownership, increased transparency in hiring and terminations, incentivize the hiring and retention of Black candidates, increased visibility for Black assistant coaches, an increased pipeline for Black coaches, uniform contracts, ban forced arbitration and monetary relief.