When the Dolphins inexplicably fired head coach Brian Flores in January after his second straight winning season—a season that ended with Flores’s squad winning eight of its final nine games—Flores decided to let the world know some of the dirtiest secrets he’d learned as a Black head coach in the NFL. The most important aspect of Flores’s racial discrimination lawsuit were details about how Black coaches are treated by NFL owners, and his lawsuit, which remains active, could have major implications for the league. But included in that lawsuit were a series of salacious claims about Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, including allegations that he was perpetually cooking up harebrained, and potentially illegal, tanking schemes that interfered with Flores’s attempts to win games.
Tuesday, the NFL announced the results of a six-month investigation that found Flores’s statements about Ross were true—extremely true, massively true, even more true than Flores had let on. The NFL stripped the Dolphins of their first-round pick in next year’s draft—they’ll still have San Francisco’s first-rounder after last year’s predraft trade—as well as a third-rounder in the 2024 draft. (It seems possible, if not convenient, that the NFL is dropping the hammer on Ross on Tuesday to distract from Monday’s reveal of its stunningly lax punishment for Deshaun Watson—who, incidentally, Ross may have attempted to acquire last year.)
In addition to the lost draft picks, Ross has been suspended and fined $1.5 million. That’s actually a bargain for Ross, considering he would’ve been on the hook for $1.6 million if Flores took him up on his alleged offer to go 0-16 for $100,000 per loss. (More on that later.) The NFL has also suspended and fined Bruce Beal, one of Ross’s business partners, a partial team owner, and the league-approved successor to the 82-year-old Ross. I sincerely hope that in the absence of Ross and Beal, team leadership temporarily falls to minority owner Fergie. It might seem ridiculous to imagine Fergie running an NFL team, but ask yourself: If Fergie was in charge of the Dolphins, would they have lost multiple valuable draft picks in various failed tampering schemes? That doesn’t seem like a particularly Fergalicious thing to do.
Flores said in the lawsuit that Ross asked him to help recruit Tom Brady starting at the end of the 2019 season, including inviting Flores to a meeting on a yacht where Brady just happened to be hanging out. The NFL’s investigation confirmed all of it and more, finding that Ross and Beal spent years trying to convince Brady to join the Dolphins, first as a player, and eventually offering up an executive role and a limited partnership. The first improper contact came in 2019, when Brady was with the Patriots, and continued through this past offseason with Brady on the Buccaneers. The NFL also confirmed an April report that Ross tried to hire Saints coach Sean Payton without the Saints’ permission—perhaps that’s why the Dolphins were so eager to run off Flores even though his team had just finished the season with a winning record (albeit out of the playoffs).
“The investigators found tampering violations of unprecedented scope and severity,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement announcing Ross’s punishments. “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.”
It was a stunningly strong statement from a commissioner who rarely criticizes his billionaire bosses. But Goodell was also clear that these punishments were for tampering alone, not tanking.
Flores claimed in his lawsuit that Ross urged him to tank during the 2019 season. The NFL’s investigation indicates that these claims are true—that Ross did, in fact, tell the Dolphins’ brain trust “that the Dolphins’ position in the upcoming 2020 draft should take priority over the team’s win-loss record,” and that Ross did make a comment about giving Flores $100,000 to lose games.
But Goodell let Ross off the hook with regards to the tanking allegations, noting that Ross stopped telling Flores to prioritize draft position after Flores wrote a letter expressing discomfort with Ross’s requests, and that the Dolphins fought hard throughout the 2019 season, turning around an 0-7 start by winning five of their final nine games. It’s strange logic. It actually seems pretty clear that Ross wanted to tank, but was saved by Flores’s coaching prowess and formal complaints about Ross’s comments. Why does Flores’s admirable refusal to tank exculpate Ross’s clearly stated desire to tank? The report also concludes that the $100,000 comment was a joke and “however phrased, such a comment was not intended or taken to be a serious offer.” This seems like a generous interpretation. Clearly, Flores did not think Ross was joking, and even if he were, it’s also probably not a good thing to make light of. After the Pac-12’s head of officiating jokingly told refs they’d get a free trip to Cancun for hitting a particular coach with technical fouls, he ended up resigning in disgrace. Ross is merely suspended until October—maybe he should use that time to work on his stand-up set, because right now his jokes aren’t landing.
Dolphins fans should be furious at Ross. His illegal, bungled attempts at recruiting a quarterback and coach will cost them critical draft resources at exactly the moment when their years-long rebuild seems ready to bloom.
And while the NFL has been harsh with Ross on the topic of tampering, ensuring that franchises keep their hands to themselves, it was clearly unwilling to act on the tanking claims despite rather convincing evidence. That seems like an intentional choice. It focuses on the clumsy missteps of one bad owner rather than acknowledging the larger issue that teams are disincentivized to win games. It sends a message to league owners: Run your teams however the hell you want. Just keep your hands out of your fellow owners’ pockets, and you’ll probably be fine.
The league has now dealt with some of the juicier claims in Flores’s lawsuit. But the more significant question remains: If Flores was broadly telling the truth about Ross’s attempts at tampering and tanking, why shouldn’t we believe his larger claims about racial discrimination in the league? In its own disciplinary process, the NFL was able to clumsily yada-yada away the allegations that Ross was tanking by claiming he’s just a silly jokester. But Flores’s lawsuit will be heard by a judge in a courtroom. And that judge might not be interested in picking and choosing which of Flores’s accurate claims are worth listening to.