THE BRIAN FLORES ALLEGATIONS – THE TRUTH WILL SET US ALL FREE
This story hit like a tsunami in the sports landscape over the last few days and the reverberations will likely continue for some time as the waves of revelations continue. Just when the Super Bowl should be the only NFL story on anyone’s mind, Brian Flores’ scorched earth lawsuit has buried all other football-related discussions right now. These are murky, troubling waters for the sports world to be swimming in, especially right now. The (social) media landscape has been ablaze with hyperbole, speculation and first-take sensationalism already, so rather than trying to add to the sensationalism and shouting, let’s just look at what we know to be true so far:
Ex- Miami Dolphins Head Coach Brian Flores has launched a class action lawsuit against all 32 teams in the NFL, claiming that the league’s hiring practices are racially discriminatory. The assertion comes after Flores was interviewed for the vacant New York Giants Head Coaching position only to discover through text messages with New England Head Coach Bill Belichick that the Giants had already agreed to hire Brian Daboll for the job and that his interview was only given as a token. Established in 2003, the NFL’s Rooney Rule mandates that teams interview people of color for all available high-level coaching positions. The rule was created to advance opportunities for BIPOC coaching candidates in a sport where over 75% of the players are Black, but a much lower percentage of coaches at all levels are non-white. In addition – and potentially more damaging to the league financially – Flores’ lawsuit also alleges that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross offered him a perverse ‘bonus’ of $100,000 per Miami loss during the 2019 season, in hopes of the team ‘tanking’ for the right to draft LSU quarterback Joe Burrow with the first overall pick. The Dolphins won 3 of their last 5 games in 2019 to finish with a 5-11 record and ended up selecting fifth in the draft. Burrow, of course, went to Cincinnati with the first pick in the 2020 draft and has just led the Bengals to their first Super Bowl appearance in over 30 years. It has been even longer since the Dolphins reached the Super Bowl.
Flores was fired earlier this month after three seasons in Miami. The Dolphins did have a winning record in each of his last two seasons, although they missed the playoffs in all three years of his tenure. Despite losing 7 of their first 8 games in 2021, Flores rallied his team to within reach of a playoff appearance, only finally being eliminated from the postseason in Week 17. A Head Coach being fired after three consecutive non-playoff seasons is hardly unprecedented in the hypercompetitive NFL.
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has adamantly denied all of Flores’ charges, calling them “false, malicious and defamatory” in a statement released on Wednesday. In the statement Ross also said that he will cooperate fully with the NFL’s pending investigation. The NFL has strongly denied Flores’ racism charges and officially announced an investigation into the Ross/tanking allegations. Recent articles on the website ProFootballTalk claim that Ross had been frustrated that he did not get the quarterback he wanted in more than one recent draft year (he apparently also wanted DeShaun Watson in 2017). Instead of drafting future Pro Bowl QB Justin Herbert with the fifth pick of the 2020 draft, the Dolphins and G.M. Chris Grier – who has not been fired – selected Tua Tagovailoa, who has struggled with injuries and inconsistency so far in his young NFL career.
Just over two years ago Ross became a key investor in the Action Network, a sports gambling startup, creating concerns of a potentially serious conflict of interest between an owner who is supposed to be doing everything he can to build a competitive team for the fans in his city while at the same time being invested in a major gambling interest that takes bets on his team and the rest of the NFL.
Whew. It’s a lot – and it’s not great, anyway you slice it. I will respectfully cede discussion of Flores’ accusations of racism in the NFL to someone more qualified to write about it than me. The gambling/conflict of interest/tanking discussion appears to be an entirely different matter. I will say that both issues must be handled swiftly, deftly and transparently by the NFL, it’s commissioner and its owners.
Attempts to ‘fix’ the outcome of sporting events have literally been around since organized sports began. Every major sport’s reputation has suffered from questions surrounding the integrity of the outcomes of major events, often more than once. From Arnold Rothstein recruiting eight Chicago White Sox players to throw the 1919 World Series to the Lucchese family’s basketball point-shaving scandal at Boston College in the early 80’s to bribery attempts in the 1946 NFL Championship, there has always been a criminal element with the resources and gall to attempt to swing the outcome of games in order to win money from betting. Allegations about both of the Muhammad Ali – Sonny Liston title fights in the 1960’s were never investigated or (dis)proven but still linger today, and boxing’s popularity since it’s heyday in the 60’s and 70’s has tumbled precipitously, at least partly due to a lack of public trust in the legitimacy of the outcomes of big fights.
Invariably, what redeemed the reputations of other leagues from losing their hold on the North American sports fan was a thorough investigation by the people in charge of the sport at the time. Rightly or not, the eight White Sox players were banned from baseball for life. Those trying to rig the 1946 NFL championship were jailed. Pete Rose is suspended and not allowed in the Hall of Fame. Investigations weeded out the wrong-doers and they were punished, allowing folks to trust that what they were watching – and betting on – was an honest competition whose outcome was legitimate. The same thing must happen here. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has to be seen spearheading this investigation, though it should be conducted by a competent neutral party. It has to be thorough and transparent and there must be consequences for any criminality that gets uncovered. The integrity of the newly legalized sports betting industry absolutely depends on it.
The key distinction between previous ‘fixing’ scandals and the current Flores/Ross situation is that this is the first major such accusation of the nascent legal betting era. In the past, the general public’s response to such scandals had a different tone because gambling was
happening on the fringes, not out in the open like it is now. Everyone involved was doing something that they knew was illegal at the time and should have known better than to expect fairness when they were knowingly breaking the law.
In 2022 though, people in most US states and in Canada are now able to lay bets through systems that are not only perfectly legal, but are administered by their own local governments. Gambling is no longer the province of a few unsavory characters doing business with the shady bookie on the corner. It is a mammoth industry that is expanding widely and wildly, already dividing billions of dollars in annual revenue with no reason to expect a slowdown any time soon. If it is to continue to prosper, it has to remain squeaky clean. There is no gray area here and there should be nowhere for any ill doings to hide from the harsh light of justice. Americans clearly love to gamble on sports – football more than all the others combined – and for legitimate, legal gambling businesses to maintain direct relationships with the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB through sponsorships, arena naming rights, etc. there must be an unshakeable trust between the American betting public and fans and the places where they lay their bets. If people even begin to doubt whether they are getting a fair chance when they lay down their hard-earned money, both industries could collapse on top of each other. Public trust and relationships with fans are both industries’ most valuable assets. If damaged by scandal, that trust will be next to impossible to repair.
No matter what this investigation reveals – and to be clear, I have no inside information, nor any clue what the outcome will be – it is essential that it happen as soon as possible. If any powerful figures at any level are found to be colluding with gamblers or are attempting to influence the outcome of games, they have to be removed from the NFL immediately. The fallout will be unpleasant and there will be negative press to be weathered if such malfeasance is uncovered, but it absolutely has to happen for the symbiotic sports/gambling relationship to continue. If no criminal behavior is found, even better – the league will have done its due diligence maintaining the integrity of America’s favorite game going forward and fans can place bets with utter confidence.
If the legal melding of pro sports and sports gambling are going to prosper together going forward, any potential criminal elements involved have to be rooted out by the NFL as soon as possible. It is fundamental to both of these industries that fans and bettors see that their favorite sport cares more about the integrity of its game and an even playing field than it cares about protecting a powerful few.