On Monday, former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores filed a class-action lawsuit that accused the National Football League and three of its biggest franchises — the Dolphins, New York Giants, and Denver Broncos — of employing racist hiring practices to shut him and other Black men out of coaching jobs. But in the middle of the suit is another explosive set of claims.
Flores alleges that in 2019, billionaire Dolphins owner Stephen M. Ross offered to pay him $100,000 for every game that he would “tank” so Miami could preserve its high draft pick the following season. He also claims Ross wanted him to try to recruit an unnamed quarterback, later reported to be Tom Brady, in contravention of league rules. (Flores was an assistant coach for Brady’s New England Patriots before leading the Dolphins’ coaching.) At first blush, these accusations have only a thin connection with the suit’s central claims. But the reality is they go further in painting a picture of a league in which rigging — against Black men, against players, and against the integrity of the sport itself — is at the heart of its operations.
On Tuesday, former Cleveland Browns coach Hue Jackson added fuel to the fire, tweeting that the team’s owner, Jimmy Haslam, had offered him “a good number” to intentionally lose games, adding that he can “back up every word.” (A message sent to the Browns wasn’t immediately returned). For owners, these charges could have potentially serious implications. If the evidence bears out, Ross and possibly Haslam could face not only problems with the league but potential criminal charges for violating bribery laws. The law around rigging in sports revolves around the concept that the outcome is supposed to be uncertain — and that when someone takes away that uncertainty, it undermines the sport altogether. “It certainly warrants criminal investigation,” said Albert Levin, a 40-year criminal defense attorney, told the Miami Herald.
Flores’s lawsuit pinpoints the rigging allegations to sometime during the 2019 season, which spanned September to December of that year. During that same period, RSE Ventures, Ross’s investment firm, closed on a $17.5 million deal to invest in the sports-gambling company Action Network. While Flores didn’t accuse Ross of trying to win extra money on gambling, the timing of the alleged payoff raises serious questions about Ross’s incentives. “If Ross is actually offering incentive payments to a coach to purposely lose a game, I do think that there’s a problem there,” Michael Elkins, a lawyer in Miami who hosts a podcast about sports law, told Intelligencer.
After the Flores suit was announced, the NFL released a statement that didn’t mention anything about Ross or payments. It did say it was “deeply committed to ensuring equitable employment practices” and would “continue to make progress in providing equitable opportunities throughout our organizations,” which could generously be read to mean it would look into rigging. On Wednesday night, after this story was published, a spokesman for the Dolphins denied the allegations on behalf of Ross. “I take great personal exception to these malicious attacks, and the truth must be known. His allegations are false, malicious and defamatory,” he said. A Browns spokesman, too, later called Jackson’s claims “fabricated.”
The 81-year-old Ross is no small player in the world of sports or business. He has been the principal owner of the team since 2008, and he owns the team’s stadium as well. His private-equity company has invested in companies like Magnolia Bakery and Milk Bar. But his real influence comes from running the Related Companies, which is one of the largest developers of luxury real estate in the U.S. and the force behind Manhattan’s Hudson Yards. Ross is also friends with Donald Trump and held fundraisers for his reelection campaign.
That the lawsuit dropped the day Brady announced his retirement from the NFL couldn’t help but stir memories of other allegations that have recently plagued the league — two of which involved Brady or his team. In 2014, there was “Deflategate,” in which the quarterback ordered air to be let out of his footballs so they could be thrown and caught easier, which led to his four-game suspension. A few years earlier, there was “Spygate,” which directly implicated Brady’s coach, Bill Belichick, for using videotape of opponents’ hand signals, resulting in record fines against the coach and the team as well as the loss of its draft position. The New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton was suspended for a year after he was found to have paid bounties to his players for deliberately injuring opponents. “Spygate, Deflategate, Bountygate — those were not win or lose for money,” Elkins said. “Now you’re talking about straight-up lose for extra money: I want my coach to tank the game. That’s a problem.”
It’s unclear if any criminal charges will be forthcoming. But for Flores, the game-rigging accusation may be a way of putting NFL executives in a position where they have no choice but to take his other claims seriously. Getting a class-action lawsuit certified is an uphill battle for any plaintiff. And remember that Flores started his career with the Patriots, had been there through NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s investigations into Spygate and Deflategate, and would have a sophisticated understanding of how the league handles accusations of unfairness.
A request for comment to Flores’s lawyer, Douglas Wigdor, went unanswered.
“I think what he did here was a leverage play, which is probably more practical than legal and sometimes much more important,” Elkins said. “It’s to get Ross on the bad side of the commissioner and the other owners because these owners traditionally stick together.”
Update: This story was updated to include responses from the Dolphins and the Browns.