In the National Football League, like most professional U.S. sports, the silver lining to a lousy season is that teams with the worst records get priority in drafting young college stars the next year. So it’s long been a joke among fans that struggling teams should intentionally lose games to secure as high a draft pick as possible.
On Tuesday, amid a 58-page lawsuit accusing the NFL of pervasive racial bias, Brian Flores alleged that’s exactly what he was instructed to do in his first year as head coach of the Miami Dolphins.
According to Flores, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, the billionaire real-estate developer, instructed him to “tank” as many games as he could during the 2019 season, dangling a $100,000 reward for each loss. Flores said he refused to do so, which created a clash with Ross and team management and ultimately led to his firing at the end of this season. Ross was “mad” that the five games the team won that season cost them a chance at the top overall draft pick, the lawsuit alleges.
It’s a bombshell within a legal case that is almost certain to garner national attention for a long time to come.
“That was a conversation about not doing as much as we needed to do to win football games, take a flight, go on vacation, ‘I’ll give you $100,000 per loss’—those exact words,” Flores said in an interview Wednesday with ESPN regarding the conversation with Ross. “To disrespect the game that way was something that—trust was lost.”
Though tanking has long been rumored, it is “a clear violation of league rules,” said Marc Edelman, a professor of sports law at City University of New York. If proven, Flores’s allegations could lead to NFL sanctions against the Dolphins and force Ross to sell the team.
Flores, who is Black, filed a proposed class action Tuesday, saying that NFL teams have hired very few Black people for the top coaching and front-office jobs, even though approximately 70% of the league’s players are Black. He faults the league for failing to live up to the “Rooney Rule,” which requires teams to consider minority candidates for head coach, general manager and other positions.
The Dolphins said in a statement that “We vehemently deny any allegations of racial discrimination and are proud of the diversity and inclusion throughout our organization. The implication that we acted in a manner inconsistent with the integrity of the game is incorrect. We will be withholding further comment on the lawsuit at this time.”
Edelman said the tanking allegation also raised the risk of lawsuits because legalized gambling has become such a prominent part of American sports.
“It seems likely if not inevitable” that the NFL, the Dolphins and Ross will be sued by gamblers who lost money on failed bets that the team would win, Edelman said. “This is fundamentally different than sitting a star player” for a game to avoid injury or reduce fatigue during a long season, as professional basketball and baseball teams do, he added.
The NFL said Flores’s claims are “without merit” in a statement. “The NFL and our clubs are deeply committed to ensuring equitable employment practices and continue to make progress in providing equitable opportunities throughout our organizations,” the league said. “Diversity is core to everything we do, and there are few issues on which our clubs and our internal leadership team spend more time.”
Flores acknowledged in a statement that he’s likely “risking coaching the game that I love” by filing the lawsuit. “My sincere hope is that by standing up against systemic racism in the NFL, others will join me to ensure that positive change is made for generations to come.”
After Flores was fired from the Miami job on Jan. 22, he hoped for a shot at running the New York Giants. But he claims he found out before his interview that he wasn’t even in the running when New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick mistakenly spilled the beans, in a series of confused texts, that the New York team would be naming Brian Daboll instead.
The Giants have denied Flores’s claims.
Ross, the chairman of Related Cos., also pressured Flores “to recruit a prominent quarterback in violation of league tampering rules,” the suit said. But the coach said he refused to meet the quarterback, leaving a lunch party on Ross’s yacht.
Flores said his refusal to play ball led Dolphins management to paint him as someone who was hard to work with.
“This is reflective of an all too familiar ‘angry Black man’ stigma that is often casted upon Black men who are strong in their morals and convictions while White men are coined as passionate,” he said.
This year’s Super Bowl, scheduled to be played Feb. 13, underscores the lure of acquiring top draft picks. Joe Burrow, the superstar quarterback who the Dolphins could have drafted had they secured the first pick after the 2019 season, leads the upstart Cincinnati Bengals against the L.A. Rams.
—With assistance from Chris Dolmetsch.
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