Sports

Hungover John Elway and Other Claims Against Broncos in Racial Bias Lawsuit

Brian Flores during his final press conference as head coach of the Miami Dolphins and John Elway during an August 2021 interview.
Brian Flores during his final press conference as head coach of the Miami Dolphins and John Elway during an August 2021 interview. Miami Dolphins via YouTube/Denver Broncos via YouTube
The notion that Denver Broncos Hall of Fame quarterback and current executive John Elway likes to imbibe isn't new. Back in 2007, Westword wrote about Elway getting cut off at a local bar; six years later, we reported on his boozy background after a series of DUIs involving management personnel and others connected to the team. And then there's the ongoing satirical Twitter account @DrunkJohnElway.

Now, however, Elway's alleged fondness for intoxicants is getting national attention by way of a lawsuit filed against the Broncos and every other team in the National Football League by former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores. The complaint alleges a pattern of discrimination against Black head coaching candidates such as Flores; the NFL currently has just one Black head coach, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Mike Tomlin.

The Flores suit, filed on February 1, has received widespread coverage that's gone well beyond sports sections, but much of the press has been sanitized, and that's not a surprise. After all, the third word of the complaint is "fucked," as in "Sorry — I fucked this up," the introductory line from a text that Flores says New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick sent after mistakenly congratulating him for winning the head coaching position with the Giants.

Problem is, that gig was actually landed by another Brian — Brian Daboll, a white man — but Belichick had accidentally offered an attaboy to Flores, who was scheduled to interview for the position three days later. According to the suit, this text let Flores know that his sit-down with the Giants was a sham intended to comply with the NFL's so-called Rooney Rule, named after Dan Rooney, the late owner of the Steelers.

The edict, which requires teams to interview so-called "ethnic-minority candidates" for their head coaching positions, was put in place in 2003, a year after the firing of two Black head coaches under highly questionable circumstances. Tony Dungy was bounced from the top job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers even though he had a winning record at the time, while Dennis Green was given his walking papers by the Minnesota Vikings following his first losing season in a decade.

The number of Black players in the NFL is estimated to be at least 57.5 percent and possibly as high as 70 percent.

Since the Rooney Rule went into effect, franchises have dutifully included Black hopefuls among their head coaching prospects, and the Broncos actually hired one such interviewee, Vance Joseph, in 2017. However, Joseph was canned after two sub-.500 seasons; the Broncos chose Vic Fangio to take his place, whose record with the team was not much of an improvement, but he was brought back for a third season, anyhow.

The lawsuit's mention of Elway comes up in an account of an interview that Flores had with the team after Joseph was bounced. Here's the excerpt:
In 2019 Mr. Flores was scheduled to interview with the Denver Broncos. However, the Broncos’ then-General Manager, John Elway, President and Chief Executive Officer Joe Ellis and others, showed up an hour late to the interview. They looked completely disheveled, and it was obvious that they had drinking heavily the night before. It was clear from the substance of the interview that Mr. Flores was interviewed only because of the Rooney Rule, and that the Broncos never had any intention to consider him as a legitimate candidate for the job. Shortly thereafter, Vic Fangio, a white man, was hired to be the Head Coach of the Broncos.
The Broncos quickly fired back at this claim with a statement: "The allegations from Brian Flores directed toward the Denver Broncos in today’s court filing are blatantly false. Our interview with Mr. Flores regarding our head coaching position began promptly at the scheduled time of 7:30 a.m. on Jan. 5, 2019 in a Providence, R.I., hotel. There were five Broncos executives present for the interview, which lasted approximately three-and-a-half hours — the fully allotted time — and concluded shortly before 11 a.m. Pages of detailed notes, analysis and evaluations from our interview demonstrate the depth of our conversation and sincere interest in Mr. Flores as a head coaching candidate. Our process was thorough and fair to determine the most qualified candidate for our head coaching position. The Broncos will vigorously defend the integrity and values of our organization — and its employees — from such baseless and disparaging claims."

Defenders of the Broncos also point out that the team actually offered a contract to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was essentially blackballed by the league after controversy erupted over his choice to kneel during the playing of the National Anthem. But as noted by Bleacher Report, this offer was made before Kaepernick began publicly taking a knee, and no additional attempts were made to lure him to Denver afterward despite a desperate need for a competent signal-caller.

Moreover, there's been plenty of debate about whether the Broncos, after canning Fangio, interviewed Kansas City Chiefs assistant coach (and former CU Buff star) Eric Bieniemy because they actually considered him to be a possible pick or merely to check a box. The team eventually hired Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, who's believed to be close to superstar hurler Aaron Rodgers and is most definitely white.

Flores's suit is a long shot, and there's a strong likelihood that Elway will never have to testify about whether he was hungover on that day back in 2019. But he can be forgiven right now if he has a hankering for a stiff drink.

Click to read Brian Flores v. The National Football League, et al.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts