How Loretta Lynch Found Herself, And The NFL, On The Wrong Side Of History

The first Black female attorney general was once a crusader for civil rights. Then she joined her current law firm, and things changed.
Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch speaks at the New York Historical Society on June 20, 2017, in New York City.
Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch speaks at the New York Historical Society on June 20, 2017, in New York City.
Spencer Platt via Getty Images

In 2016, then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the first Black woman to hold that position, gave a speech on community-police relations at the White House Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week Conference. This was the year that The Counted, a study by The Guardian that tracked police killings in the U.S., found that Black men ages 15-34 were nine times more likely to be killed by law enforcement than other Americans, and were being killed at some four times the rate of young white men. It was three years or so after the Movement for Black Lives had begun, and Lynch was sermonizing on the works of the civil rights movement before the diaspora of brown faces in the audience that day.

She sang the praises of the four young Black men from North Carolina A&T who, in 1960, walked into a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, and asked to be served like any other patron. She talked about the persistence and courage of the Greensboro Four, as history would call them. She spoke of the stool where one of them had sat.

“That stool holds a particular significance for me ― not just because I was born in Greensboro the year before the Woolworth’s sit-in, and not just because my father allowed student activists to meet in the basement of his church,” she said. “And not just because this audacious act of civil disobedience changed the very neighborhoods and school systems I grew up in. What that stool signifies for me is the ordinary individual’s ability to strike a blow for justice.”

Three years after she gave this speech, Lynch joined the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, where she would become a partner in the Washington, D.C., office. And on Wednesday, it was announced that the NFL had tapped Lynch and her partners to defend the league and its teams against claims of racism from former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores.

The ancestors’ collective sigh could be heard throughout Black Twitter.

The NFL has always been a bastion of white supremacy that preserves racial privilege and insulates itself from real consequences. NFL owners are only accountable to themselves. The owners pay the NFL commissioner. As such, NFL owners have ignored Black ownership inquiries; they’ve ignored qualified Black men looking to become head coaches; they’ve even ignored Black protests. As the old Kanye might have said, the NFL doesn’t care about Black people.

Flores’ lawsuit alleges that not only was he unjustly fired, but that he was given what amounted to sham interviews with the New York Giants and the Denver Broncos simply because the NFL had to meet a formal obligation. See, the NFL used to be so racist that they had to establish what’s known as the Rooney Rule, named after Dan Rooney, a former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers who was also in charge of the diversity committee. The Rooney Rule came about in 2003 after two Black head coaches, Tony Dungy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dennis Green of the Minnesota Vikings, were fired at the end of 2002. Dungy’s Bucs had a winning record when he was let go, and Green’s Vikings had their first losing season in 10 years of his leadership when he was given his walking papers. Critics saw Dungy and Green’s dismissals as racially motivated. So the NFL implemented the Rooney Rule to placate Black assistant coaches seeking upper-level positions. It was an affirmative action fail-safe that requires NFL owners to give minority candidates an interview for high-ranking positions ― but it doesn’t say they have to hire them. So that’s precisely what the owners do: They interview Black candidates with no intention of giving them the job.

It’s a charade, all of it. The NFL has no problem paying Black men to risk bodily injury, but they don’t want them in the ownership boxes or head coaching positions, which ― and this is the quiet part that never gets said above a whisper ― would mean interacting on a more personal level. Head coaches and owners often have a friendly relationship. They spend time at each other’s houses; they go over player salaries and possible acquisitions. They talk about team needs and spend a lot of time in the offseason together. This might explain why before Flores’ lawsuit, the NFL only had one active Black head coach, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers. After Flores filed the suit, Lovie Smith was hired to coach the Houston Texans, and Mike McDaniel, who identifies as multiracial, is now the new coach of the Miami Dolphins.

The point is, the NFL has a huge race problem, and it’s upsetting to see the first Black female attorney general now arguing on the wrong side of history. Lynch had been a crusader for civil rights until 2019, when she joined her current law firm. Then things changed. Since then, she’s became the go-to attorney to defend large companies against claims of racism.

One can’t help but wonder: If the lunch counter sit-in were to happen in 2022, would Lynch defend Woolworth’s?

And it’s stunning to see the reversal of fate, to watch as this once courageous champion of civil rights becomes the person large companies look for when faced with the charge of racism. We are literally watching the hero become the villain in real time.

In September 2020 ― when McDonald’s was facing multiple lawsuits from Black franchisees claiming that the company was limiting which locations they could purchase and often steering them to all-Black, low-income neighborhoods ― the golden arches hired Loretta Lynch to defend them.

In 2021 ― when Black multimedia mogul Byron Allen sued McDonald’s for $10 billion, alleging that the company was discriminating against Black-owned media companies ― it was again Lynch who was tasked with defending the fast-food giant. According to Allen’s lawsuit, McDonald’s spends $1.6 billion a year on television ads and “spends less than approximately $5 million each year on African American-owned media, and it has refused to advertise on Entertainment Studios networks or The Weather Channel since Allen acquired the network in 2018.”

While that $5 million may sound like a lot of money, it amounts to a mere 0.3% of McDonald’s annual TV ad budget spent with African American-owned media.

“This is about economic inclusion of African American-owned businesses in the U.S. economy,” Allen told Marc Lamont Hill on “Black News Tonight.”McDonald’s takes billions from African American consumers and gives almost nothing back. The biggest trade deficit in America is the trade deficit between White corporate America and Black America, and McDonald’s is guilty of perpetuating this disparity. The economic exclusion must stop immediately.”

It is important to note that Bryon Allen is flush with cash. If there is one person who is not hurting for money, it’s Byron Allen. Presumably, then, money isn’t the reason for Allen’s fight; history is.

Allen told Hill that a conversation with Dr. Martin Luther King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, motivated his journey to take on large corporations that love Black money but not Black burden.

“She said, ‘Listen, Byron, as Black people, we had four major challenges in this country. Number one: End slavery. Number two: End Jim Crow. Number three: Achieve civil rights.’ And then she choked up,” Allen said. “And she said, ‘And number four, the real reason they killed my Martin: Achieve economic inclusion.’”

Allen went on: “She said, ‘You know, Byron, they didn’t kill Martin over the speech I Have a Dream. They killed my Martin over the speech he gave at Stanford University, The Other America. In that speech, he talked about there being two Americas, and one America having access to an education and economic inclusion, and the other America does not. And two Americas will not survive.’”

It’s jarring to see this juxtaposition of Allen and Coretta Scott King on one side of the fight and Lynch on the other, but I’ve given up trying to sort through what motivates people to oppose the fight for equality. Maybe it’s money. (It’s always money.) But that feels easy, especially considering Lynch wasn’t hurting financially. She was the highest-ranking law enforcement in the land at one point. She could have landed anywhere, done anything. Instead, the woman who once fought for civil rights has become someone who tries to undo years of civil rights work for a paycheck.

My father used to say that there was never a shortage of Black people willing to undo the work of those who helped them get there. Lynch has to know that she’s become the Black face called upon for cases like these. And I don’t know how she makes that right within herself.