The NFL came down hard today on its Miami Dolphins franchise with a stiff fine and loss of two draft picks following a six-month investigation into allegations that ‘Fins had “tampered” by trying to lure Tom Brady and former New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton to South Florida while they were still employed by other teams.
But it’s another part of the NFL’s investigation into the Dolphins—that owner Stephen Ross had tried to pay their former head coach Brian Flores $100,000 to deliberately lose games in 2019 before firing him after the 2021 season—that raised our eyebrows. The NFL’s lead investigator, former federal prosecutor and Securities and Exchange Commission chair Mary Jo White, was extremely nuanced about Flores’ tanking claim at the same time that she found them guilty as sin on the tampering beef.
White found that the Dolphins never intentionally lost a game and Ross didn’t explicitly tell or pay Flores to do so. Of course, there’s a “but” here. The NFL’s statement on the situation has the tell:
Mr. Ross expressed his belief that the Dolphins’ position in the upcoming 2020 draft should take priority over the team’s win-loss record. These comments were made most frequently to Team President and CEO Tom Garfinkel, but were also made to General Manager Chris Grier, Senior Vice President Brandon Shore and Coach Flores. These comments, which he took to be suggestions that he lose games, troubled Coach Flores and led him to express his concerns in writing to senior club executives, each of whom assured Coach Flores that everyone, including Mr. Ross, supported him in building a winning culture in Miami.
One such comment is a claimed offer by Mr. Ross to pay Coach Flores $100,000 to lose games, as to which there are differing recollections about the wording, timing, and context. However phrased, such a comment was not intended or taken to be a serious offer, nor was the subject pursued in any respect by Mr. Ross or anyone else at the club.
Put another way, the NFL acknowledges that the Dolphins’ owner did what Flores—who is currently suing them in federal court—said he did. But it kinda didn’t matter because he was only just playin’.
How much you wanna bet that that gem finds its way into the NFL’s defense against Flores’ lawsuit? Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, this was all just a big misunderstanding. It’s just like that whole tanking thing: yeah, we said Brian Flores won’t get another head coaching job, but it ain’t like we meant it literally.
After Flores sued the NFL, the Dolphins and several other teams in February, alleging racial discrimination in their hiring processes, the tanking claim was one of the more salacious accusations. The meat of the lawsuit, though, is that he and other Black NFL coaches were being used in sham interviews to comply with the league’s Rooney Rule, but they weren’t ever being given a real shot at head coaching jobs.
At the time, the pay-for-tank claim was covered like a sweet cup of hot tea served alongside the main course of the NFL yet again being accused of institutionalized racism, especially in a year in which it was already wrestling with Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson’s sexual assault allegations and was just getting past former Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden’s racist emails scandal.
Six months later, Ross, an NFL team owner and thus a member of a class that almost never gets its wrist slapped by Goodell, is suspended through Oct. 17 and fined $1.5 million while his team loses its first round pick in the 2023 NFL draft and a third-rounder in 2024. Draft picks are a currency more valuable than cash in the NFL, so the NFL’s message to the Dolphins not to fuck around like this anymore came though a megaphone. But the league is whispering that it’ll be extra careful about giving Flores any ammunition he can use against it in court.
Flores, now a defensive assistant with the Pittsburgh Steelers, said through a statement from his lawyer that he’s pleased that the NFL “found my factual allegations against Stephen Ross are true,” but said White had “minimized Mr. Ross’ offers and pressure to tank games…”
The NFL, the statement said, “cannot police itself, which is why we look forward to continuing to push the legal process, prove all of Brian’s claims, as well as those of a class of Black executives, coaches and candidate, and force real change upon the NFL.”