The NFL’s suspension and $1.5 million fine of Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has significant ramifications for Brian Flores’ race discrimination lawsuit against the league.
The league’s decision came in response to investigative findings made by former U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, and the suspension will sideline the billionaire owner through Oct. 17.
White, a former chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, was hired by the league in March to investigate allegations the Dolphins (1) tampered with the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers by recruiting Tom Brady while he was under contract with other teams; (2) tampered with the New Orleans Saints by recruiting coach Sean Payton while he was under contract with the Saints; and (3) intentionally lost games or “tanked” for a better draft pick in 2019 at Ross’ behest. The 82-year-old Ross allegedly offered then-Dolphins coach Flores $100,000 for every loss the team suffered during the 2019 season as a means improving the team’s draft status; Ross has vehemently denied the claim.
White’s investigation, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in the league’s statement, “found tampering violations of unprecedented scope and severity.” These findings confirm what Flores has alleged in court documents. Goodell added: “I know of no prior instance of a team violating the prohibition on tampering with both a head coach and star player, to the potential detriment of multiple other clubs, over a period of several years. Similarly, I know of no prior instance in which ownership was so directly involved in the violations.”
In addition to incurring the fine and suspension, Ross has been removed from all league committees, is barred from entering the Dolphins’ facility and is prohibited from attending any league meetings until the NFL’s annual meeting is held in 2023. Although it’s theoretically possible for an owner to be expelled from their franchise, it has never happened. The NFL does not say it intends to seek Ross’ expulsion. Removal would require, among other conditions, a vote to remove by at least three-fourths of the 31 other ownership groups.
Arguably the more significant development in White’s investigation is her conclusions on tanking. She found no evidence or witness testimony that the Dolphins intentionally lost teams or that Ross told Flores to do so. “The Dolphins competed hard to win every game,” the league wrote, “including at the end of the season when they beat Cincinnati and New England, despite worsening Miami’s position in the 2020 draft.”
However, the NFL’s wording on Ross and Flores will likely be scrutinized by Flores’ attorneys. The NFL acknowledged that on numerous occasions, Ross told Flores and other club officials that he believed draft position took priority over winning games. After Flores complained to other executives about Ross’ statements, Ross stopped making those remarks to Flores. The NFL, in other words, confirmed that Ross vocally supported tanking and made that position clear to those who worked for him.
The NFL also acknowledged that Flores says Ross offered to pay him $100,000 to lose games. The NFL contends there are “different recollections” about this alleged offer but attempts to downplay it by saying, “such a comment was intended or taken to be a serious offer.”
Flores might question the NFL’s use of the phrase “taken to be.” Taken by whom? Flores might ask. Flores’ lawsuit suggests it was a serious offer made by a billionaire owner, who could fire him at any time and who ultimately did fire him. Flores’ attorneys can also point out that while White has impeccable credentials, she is not “independent” in that the NFL—one of the defendants in Flores’ lawsuit—hired her. Ongoing litigation should shed more light on that issue and expect Flores to demand the NFL turn over emails, texts, interview notes and other materials in White’s investigation.
“Even if made in jest and not intended to be taken seriously,” Goodell said in the NFL’s statement, “comments suggesting that draft position is more important than winning can be misunderstood and carry with them an unnecessary potential risk to the integrity of the game.” But Goodell stresses that “Mr. Ross did not affect Coach Flores’ commitment to win and the Dolphins competed to win every game,” for which the commissioner says Flores “is to be commended.”
Ross issued a statement following the NFL’s announcement. As he sees it, White’s investigation “cleared” the Dolphins of “any issues related to tanking and all of Brian Flores’ other allegations.” Ross says Flores’ allegations are “false, malicious and defamatory.”
He adds “this issue is now put to rest.”
Flores’ lawsuit, however, suggests otherwise. To that point, Flores released a statement on Tuesday saying he is “thankful the NFL’s investigator found my factual allegations against Stephen Ross are true.” Flores attorney Douglas Wigdor added that White “has confirmed the truth of Brian’s allegations of tampering” and “confirmed the accuracy of the factual allegations made by Mr. Flores.”
Both tampering and tanking are forms of cheating, intended to break rules that teams are contractually bound to follow and that are designed to ensure fair play and legitimate competition. If teams refuse to follow those rules, other teams will be incentivized to do the same or risk suffering a competitive disadvantage. This is why pro leagues take cheating so seriously.
Cheating also impacts third parties, including those who bet on games or player performances, and has led to lawsuits brought by those parties—such as fantasy sports contestants suing over impermissible sign-stealing and electronic communications by the Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.
With assistance from Scott Soshnick and Eben Novy-Williams.