Sidelined is a season-long look at the NFL’s lack of diversity in its coaching ranks.
When he named Brian Flores as head coach of his NFL team in February 2019, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross was making sports history and inspiring fantastical comparisons.
“People started to nickname the Dolphins Wakanda,” said Kenneth Shropshire, who once worked for the team as a diversity consultant, referring to the fictional African nation portrayed in the Black Panther movie.
In hiring the 37-year-old Flores, Ross and the Dolphins had Black men in five of the team’s top football jobs: head coach, assistant head coach, defensive coordinator, general manager and assistant general manager. The Dolphins also had three Black senior vice presidents on the business side.
“It was historic,” said veteran journalist Dave Hyde of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “The front office and coaching staff he hired and put together was more diverse than any team in the history of American sports. It was unmatched by anything the NFL had seen.”
People started to hold the Dolphins up as a shining example of what inclusivity should look like in the NFL, a league in which 58% of the players are Black (and another 10% are multiracial) while the proportion of Black head coaches has never exceeded 25%.
Ross and the Dolphins were honored by some of sports’ most prestigious diversity groups, including the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which presented the Dolphins with the Paul J. Tagliabue Award for diversity at its Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Salute to Excellence Awards in 2020. Two years earlier, the Jackie Robinson Foundation had given Ross its lifetime achievement award.
Today, those feel-good vibes are gone.
Last week, the NFL suspended Ross until Oct. 17 for tampering with quarterback Tom Brady and coach Sean Payton. The league also ordered the Dolphins to forfeit their first-round pick in the 2023 NFL draft and a third-round selection in 2024. Additionally, Ross was fined $1.5 million and prohibited from being at the Dolphins facility or representing the club until Oct. 17. He can’t attend any league meeting before 2023.
The discipline resulted from an investigation that began after Flores, whom Ross had fired in January, filed suit claiming his dismissal was the result of racial discrimination. While Flores had won as many or more games as Kliff Kingsbury or Kyle Shanahan, equally youthful white head coaches who both had their contracts extended, Ross said Flores wasn’t getting the job done as a collaborator and communicator. The New York Giants and Denver Broncos quickly interviewed Flores for their head-coaching jobs. But neither team hired him.
On the first day of Black History Month, Flores hit the NFL, Dolphins, Giants and Broncos with a class-action lawsuit, claiming he and other Black coaches face discrimination in the hiring-and-retention process. Black coaches have long complained quietly about how white team owners favored white coaches for their openings. But this is the first time the league has faced a class-action lawsuit from a former head coach.
Flores dropped two more bombshells in his suit. He alleged that Ross had tampered with a high-profile, unnamed quarterback (it was found to have been Brady) under contract to another team and that Ross had fired Flores, in part, because the coach had refused six-figure bonuses to lose games on purpose in 2019 to improve the team’s draft position.
Ross denied the charges at the time. But six months later, commissioner Roger Goodell announced that Ross and Bruce Beal, one of the team’s limited partners, were guilty of violating the league’s tampering rules for their interactions with Brady while the quarterback was under contract with the New England Patriots in 2019 and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2021. There was also tampering in January 2022 related to Payton, then with the New Orleans Saints.
But the investigation concluded that Ross was merely joking in his offers of bonuses to Flores to lose games. Flores’ discrimination lawsuit continues in federal court in New York.
So how did the 82-year-old Ross go from being honored as a leader on diversity issues to becoming entangled in one of the most prominent discrimination lawsuits in American sports history?
The story starts in 2013, four years after Ross had paid $1.1 billion to take a controlling interest in the Dolphins. His was an amazing business success story, a Detroit native who took a $10,000 loan from his mom in the early 1970s and grew it into a company with more than $60 billion in real estate assets. His business, Related Companies, has built everything from affordable and market-rate homes to skyscrapers, including the Time Warner Center in Manhattan. Forbes estimates his personal net worth at $8.2 billion.
The Dolphins, on the other hand, were a mediocre team that rarely made the playoffs. And that fall, the team was consumed by the story of Jonathan Martin, a 6-foot-5, 312-pound Black offensive lineman who left the team after being bullied by an older white teammate, Richie Incognito. An NFL investigation found racial slurs in text and voice messages Incognito had sent to Martin. Neither Martin nor Incognito played for that Dolphins team again after “Bullygate” exploded and Ross fired the offensive line coach and head trainer.
At the time Bullygate made the news, Ross was in his hometown of Detroit and told a Detroit News reporter that racism was at the root of both the problem on his team and disinvestment in America’s inner cities. The billionaire real estate developer and NFL owner decided he wanted to do something about it.
He began by talking to people steeped in issues of inequality and race, including Shropshire, who at the time was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross speaks on the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality on Oct. 25, 2015, in Miami Gardens, Florida.
Joel Auerbach/AP Photo
“I want to do something ambitious that uses sport to address racism in the United States,” Shropshire recalled Ross telling him on a phone call.
“What about the world?” Shropshire jokingly responded.
“Well,” Ross said, “let’s start with the United States.”
The men began building out what became the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, or RISE.
At the start, Ross provided nearly all of RISE’s funding, about $3 million a year. He also helped stock RISE’s board of directors with some of the most influential leaders in American sports, including the commissioners of the NFL, NBA, MLB and MLS, and the presidents of NASCAR and the NCAA. The board also included leaders from each of the major sports television networks (including ESPN, which owns Andscape). Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue signed up, and so did Shropshire.
In 2015 and 2016, RISE board meetings were held at the offices of Related Companies on Columbus Circle in Manhattan. “They were,” Shropshire told me, “very valuable rooms to be in.”
RISE’s goal was to improve race relations and champion social justice through the power of sports. It sought to educate and empower children and adults from middle school through the major professional ranks, including athletes, coaches and team staffs. It held seminars across the country and trained sports figures in diversity education so they could spread the gospel of tolerance.
“When Stephen was faced with a very shocking revelation of race issues within his own organization during that time, he took immediate and intentional actions to rectify the matter both internally and externally,” Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, said of Bullygate.
“There was a whole reckoning internally about people, about the removal of staff, coaches, how they did business,” Vincent said. “And then there was the external. That’s how we got to RISE. And that has had tremendous impact toward educating about advancing diversity. And not only football, but all sport.”
Ross’ commitment to anti-racism extended beyond sports. He and his lieutenants pushed for diversity programs in Related Companies, including opportunities for students from the Harlem Educational Activities Fund, a college-access initiative, to shadow and intern at his business.
He wanted to bring a wider variety of talent into Related’s offices in Manhattan. He found one candidate in 2012 in 26-year-old Jamar Adams, a former University of Michigan defensive back who had played fewer than three years in the NFL before retiring with an injury.
Adams was headed to a job with the investment bank Goldman Sachs when a Michigan acquaintance arranged a 15-minute introductory meeting between Adams and Ross.
“At the time I was working with another Michigan football player to buy a house in Ann Arbor and turn it into this incubation lab, and he really liked what I was talking about,” Adams recalled. “And he just blurted out after the first 15 minutes, ‘You know what, why don’t you just come work for me? You could be a star here.’ ”
The 15-minute meeting lasted five hours.
“To me, race is not how you make decisions. I’ve always worked to identify the best people and empower them to succeed. I am proud of providing access to opportunities throughout our entire organization.”
— Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross
“And he had his cellphone in his top pocket,” Adams recalled of Ross. “He’s like, ‘I’ll call [Goldman Sachs CEO] Lloyd Blankfein right now and tell him, ‘F— you! He’s coming to work for me.’ ”
Adams joined Related Companies as a real estate analyst. Within a few years, he rose to a vice president of New York development, and the two would run into each other around the office.
“He would say, ‘Hey, I’m going back to Michigan for a game. You want to come?’ Fly to the game and he’d be like, ‘Yo, I’m going to the game in Miami. You want to come?’
“He had these meetings every Monday with the GM and head of football operations,” Adams said of the Dolphins. “And they would talk about personnel decisions and watch film. And he’d be like, ‘Hey, I want you to come to these meetings with me.’ ”
In eight years at Related Companies, Adams oversaw the construction or rehab of 5,000 housing units. In 2020, he started his own business, Essence Development, which focuses on low-income housing that provides access to quality schools and health care, nutritional food and workforce training. Ross sits on Essence’s board of directors. The New York City Housing Authority recently awarded Essence and Related a contract to renovate 2,054 apartments in Manhattan.
“I was fortunate enough to give Jamar opportunities to excel – that’s the key,” said Ross, who answered questions from Andscape via email. “As long as Jamar was given the opportunity and put in the position to succeed, I knew he would.”
Adams, now 36, said that having Ross in his corner is vital: “Black developers don’t get the same [financial] terms as their white counterparts,” Adams told me. “You make the same income. You have the same assets. You go to a bank for a loan and they’re going to give your white counterpart better terms than they give you.”
Adams says that Ross tells him he has one objective in mind: “I want to make sure nobody’s trying to screw you over.”
Stephen Michael Ross was born May 10, 1940, in Detroit. His dad, David John Ross, was originally from Canada. His mom, Gail Fisher, was originally from Salem, Ohio, halfway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
“My dad was a very creative guy, an inventor,” Ross said by email. “He wasn’t a financial success, but he was a very smart, creative guy. He was an extremely hard worker. I learned from my family about giving back, they were so philanthropic and were always about giving back — that’s what I learned from them.”
His mom’s brother, Max Fisher, built one of the largest gas station chains in the Midwest and then began investing in real estate. Max Fisher had played football on scholarship at Ohio State University and graduated from OSU’s business school. He also faced instances of antisemitism, such as being denied membership to the YMCA. Ross picked up on how his uncle dealt with racism, as well as money, philanthropy and power. Max Fisher was a friend of Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower and advised other GOP presidents on issues involving the Middle East and Jewish affairs. Max Fisher also donated so much money to Ohio State that the business school was named after him.
“He was an inspiration and a philanthropist who wanted to make the world a better place,” Ross wrote to Andscape. “That’s where I adopted a lot of my philosophical thinking that guided me. He was a great person to look up to, someone who did so much for others and was such a philanthropist.”
Max Fisher’s businesses sponsored Detroit’s pro sports teams and Ross would accompany his uncle to games. When his dad and mom took him to a football game in Ann Arbor, Michigan, one fall, he fell in love with the pageantry and the campus and vowed that he’d go to college there.
His dad took a job in Miami when Ross was 14 and he attended Miami Beach Senior High School, where he played football. In Ross’ senior year, his application to his dream university, Michigan, was rejected due to his average grades.
After two years at the University of Florida, Ross was able to transfer to Michigan and graduated with a degree in business administration in 1962. Ross went on to get a law degree at Wayne State University in Detroit and Fisher then paid for his nephew to attend New York University, where he earned a master’s degree in tax law in 1966. Ross returned to Detroit and practiced as a tax attorney for a couple of years before heading back to New York to work on Wall Street. According to Wayne State professor Alan Schenk, who wrote a book about the law school’s students, Ross was fired from the investment bank Bear Stearns after arguing with his boss over a proposal to use a relatively new federal income-tax incentive for public housing.
That’s when Ross received $10,000 from his mom to start Related Housing Companies — “all things are related,” he once said — based on his rejected Bear Stearns work. Within two years, he was clocking a half-million dollars a year, 20 times more than his Bear Stearns salary, according to DBusiness, a Detroit business journal. He began building market-rate housing and, eventually, skyscrapers such as the Time Warner Center and Hudson Yards in New York. He dropped “Housing” from the business name.
Like Uncle Max, he began giving money away — especially to Michigan. In 2004, Michigan became the second Big Ten university to name its business school after a member of the family following a $100 million donation from Ross. Less than a decade later, he gave the business school another $100 million, and did the same for Michigan’s athletics department.
Ross carried his mindset for finding talent and promoting diversity over to professional football after he acquired the Dolphins in 2009.
But by 2019, the team still hadn’t won a playoff game during his time as owner. He’d been through five head coaches, including interims. The Dolphins resided in the AFC East, the same division as the New England Patriots, the NFL’s most successful team in the 21st century, with six Super Bowl titles since the 2001 season.
Ross could see the Patriots’ formula: They had a legendary head coach (Bill Belichick) and quarterback (Tom Brady). In real estate, Ross had always figured out the angles, studied the best practices and became the best in class. In the NFL, he figured he could do the same — if only he could land the right head coach-quarterback combination.
In 2018, Ross had placed his team’s personnel power in the hands of Chris Grier, a lifelong team employee. Grier and Ross looked north to Boston for a new head coach in 2019. There, working under Belichick, was Flores, a former college linebacker who had grown up in a tough section of Brooklyn, New York, and made it to Boston College on a football scholarship. After school, he stayed in Boston and began working his way up the Patriots organization, first as a scout and later as an assistant coach.
From left to right: Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross with his new head coach Brian Flores and general manager Chris Grier at a news conference in Davie, Florida, on Feb. 4, 2019.
Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Ross told Andscape he’s always just looking to hire the best people.
“To me, race is not how you make decisions,” he said. “I’ve always worked to identify the best people and empower them to succeed. I am proud of providing access to opportunities throughout our entire organization.”
Friends of Ross, such as Maverick Carter, CEO of SpringHill Company, say he does push for diversity, looking to hire the best person available for the job.
“I mean, he owns an NFL team, right?” said Carter, who called me one afternoon in June while on a business trip in Europe. “He was the only team [owner] who had a Black head coach and a Black GM at the same time. Putting that aside, just with my interaction with Steve as a person, he’s always been a guy who believes in meritocracy. If you’re good and talented and smart, Steve is into that. I’ve seen him do that from the way he invests his money to the way he hires people at his companies.”
Carter met Ross in 2010, when Carter’s business partner and longtime friend, NBA star LeBron James, had just signed to play for the Miami Heat.
“Being that LeBron was headed to Miami, I wanted to meet people who were prominent in the city and who had lots of business going on in the city,” Carter said.
Ross eventually recommended Carter for a spot on the board of the fitness brand Equinox Group, owned by Related Companies, with subsidiaries such as SoulCycle and Equinox Hotels. He’s also on the RISE board.
“Any company, when you’re really trying to diversify it, you need people of color at all levels,” Carter said. “And to put someone young like myself, and of color on the board, he knows when I walk into the boardroom that I’m going to push for people of color like me at every level.”
Ross also tossed some business Carter’s way.
“He hired us to come to El Clasico,” Carter said of a friendly between Real Madrid and Barcelona held at the Dolphins stadium as part of the International Champions Cup in 2017. “He invested in my company. In the last round, he put a significant amount of money into our company and then he’s become a friend.”
America had a different vibe in 2015 when Ross, Shropshire and others started RISE.
A cop in Minneapolis hadn’t yet murdered George Floyd. NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick hadn’t yet demonstrated the power of taking a knee. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were in the White House. Black Lives Matter wasn’t a household word.
Back then, few people paid attention to Ross’ political activity. But that changed after he created an anti-racism nonprofit and the culture wars engulfed America.
From 2016 to 2019, most of the criticism directed at Ross stemmed from what some said was his equivocation over players following Kaepernick’s example and kneeling during the national anthem before Dolphins games.
Ross always said that he supported the players’ right to kneel, especially in 2017 after President Donald J. Trump said, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b—- off the field right now. Out. He’s fired!’ ”
But as the protests continued, Ross was less supportive. In March 2018, he said that all players would be standing for the anthem in the fall. Almost immediately, he walked that statement back, while arguing that the message from the protests was being seen as unpatriotic and anti-military.
Kenny Stills kneels during the national anthem before a preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Hard Rock Stadium on Aug. 22, 2019, in Miami. “Behind closed doors, he [Ross] was trying to get us to stop the protest, and in public he was saying that he supports us,” Stills said.
Michael Reaves/Getty Images
One Dolphins player, wideout Kenny Stills, took a knee for three straight seasons – 2016 through 2018.
“Behind closed doors, he was trying to get us to stop the protest, and in public he was saying that he supports us,” Stills told me this spring.
“They used these different tactics to try to get us to stop the protest, starting with people in the front office and then the head coach, the position coaches and then players,” he said. “They had this whole scheme they were running to try to get us to stop with the protest.”
When the NFL asked teams to come up with a plan for protests before the 2019 season, the Dolphins drafted a policy proposing a four-game suspension for violators. The draft drew strong rebukes from activists, for Ross and the team.
“You can’t accept the Jackie Robinson Award and then come out and say some of the things that have been said about some of the athletes protesting for social justice,” said Harry Edwards, the civil rights activist and a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley.
Like with his uncle, most of Ross’ political largesse went to Republicans. According to an OpenSecrets analysis of his federal campaign contributions since 2016, Ross has given $246,000 to Democrats and $1.9 million to Republicans.
In 2019, Ross came under fire for hosting a fundraiser at his Southampton estate in upstate New York for Trump. Critics said his support for Trump raised questions about his commitment to diversity and reducing carbon emissions. Equinox and SoulCycle released a joint statement denouncing the fundraiser and characterizing Ross as a “passive investor” with no management responsibilities in the companies.
In interviews since then, Ross has been contrite and said the backlash against his businesses caught him off guard. But he has continued to support politicians whose actions appear to conflict with the goals of RISE. For instance, in March, Ross gave $100,000 to Friends of Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor’s independent political action committee, according to state campaign finance records. DeSantis has recently signed a series of bills limiting how schools can discuss race, sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms and preventing transgender girls and women from participating in sports at secondary and postsecondary schools.
Ross declined to respond to questions about his political contributions. His aides point out that Ross also donated to Sen. Chuck Schumer and Gov. Kathy Hochul, both Democrats who represent New York; Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat who represents Virginia; and Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat and a former CEO of the Ross Initiative.
But activists like Stills aren’t mollified by that argument.
“You can’t have your cake and eat it, too,” said Stills, who was traded to the Houston Texans soon after he publicly criticized Ross for hosting the fundraiser. “You’re not able to be friends and buddy up with Trump and people that are totally stoking the fire when it comes to racism and injustice in this country and then trying to have a nonprofit organization to end racism in sports. That’s why we had our falling-out.”
Edwards, the Berkeley professor, agreed.
“You’re hosting stuff for Trump. You’re giving money to DeSantis and you donate to all these, essentially, white supremacists,” Edwards said. “Come on, man, give me a break. That’s where I think the train leaves the track at.”
NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent (left) chats with Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross (right) as they leave the NFL meetings on Oct. 15, 2019, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo
But Todd Boyd, an expert in race and pop culture and a professor at the University of Southern California, said Ross is only “hedging his bets” like most tycoons.
“It’s not uncommon for people in business, high-profile people, to support opposing sides of a political issue,” said Boyd. “It’s thought of as, whatever way things play out, this person will … cover themselves.”
Boyd said the bottom line trumps most other causes and initiatives in corporate America, even ones for the environment or equity.
Ross’ friends say the best they can do is try to show him a different perspective.
“At the end of the day, we all have to remind ourselves: Stephen is a businessman,” Vincent told me. “And like any businessman, he’s going to make personal decisions about what he believes is best for his business.”
Carter and James, along with others, have started a nonprofit called More Than A Vote to encourage Black turnout at the polls and stop voter suppression. RISE is also sponsoring voter registration campaigns. Given those efforts, I asked Carter about Ross’ financial support of DeSantis and Trump, who have been accused of voter suppression efforts.
“My job with Steve as a friend is to make sure he knows exactly how I feel about any of those things that I’m aware of,” Carter told me, “and talk him through it and try to understand what he is doing and make sure he understands how I feel personally, right? And the people that I love and care about, and how we feel about it.
“You know, Steve’s not a spring chicken,” Carter said. “He’s a very older gentleman who has things he believes in.”
“What’s your advice to your friend?” I asked.
“I don’t necessarily render advice,” Carter responded. “I tell him how I feel about it.”
Seven years after starting RISE, Ross remains its leading funder. He told me that he’s committed more than $30 million to the organization. Yet these days, he’s not as steeped in the daily activities of the nonprofit as he once was.
Diahann Billings-Burford, RISE’s CEO since September 2018, said she communicates with Ross about as regularly as she does with other directors. She is trying to make RISE less financially dependent on Ross, both for its own growth and so it can avoid having political controversies dog the organization.
Diahann Billings-Burford, CEO of RISE, said she communicates with Ross about as regularly as she does with other directors. She is trying to make RISE less financially dependent on Ross.
Diwang Valdez for Andscape
“When I stepped in, I think 90-plus percent of our contributions came from one donor, Stephen,” said Billings-Burford.
After the Trump fundraiser, Shropshire told me that he resigned from the board in protest. And one prominent donor withheld a grant, Billings-Burford said. When I told her about Ross’ contributions to fundraising committees connected to DeSantis, Billings-Burford said that RISE has had to deal with such controversies before and would weather whatever fallout came as a result.
“While RISE is a nonpartisan organization and the political views of our board members have absolutely no influence on our work or mission, I want to reiterate that we do not support any belief, political stance or legislation that conflict with our core principles and mission,” Billings-Burford said. “That is why we are disappointed in the decision by Stephen Ross to make political contributions to the governor of that state.”
Had she ever thought about resigning?
“The alternative is that the important work doesn’t get done if we all walk away from it,” she said. “And I’m not willing to walk away from the work.”
Two years ago, the RISE board approved a plan to become a public charity. Burford said that such a change, which is a five-year process, would allow RISE to evolve, including receiving tax-deductible funds from additional sources.
Without announcing the change, RISE also has been morphed into just its acronym, no longer identifying itself as the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality.
The coronavirus pandemic and social protest that roiled America in recent years have helped RISE experience explosive growth. RISE officials say that in 2021, the organization had 600 engagements with sports teams, leagues and athletes, a 285% jump from 2019. They say that RISE has educated more than 5 million people about diversity in its seven-year history and built relationships with more than 500 partners.
RISE has surveyed more than 12,000 athletes and 3,400 coaches and athletic staff from more than 100 colleges and universities to understand perceptions of racism, social justice and activism. The group’s survey data shows that 97% of students say they want to deepen their knowledge of race and diversity.
RISE also boasts of holding more than 90 voter education/registration sessions with pro and collegiate organizations through its nonpartisan RISE to Vote initiative and built a coalition of more than 50 pro sports teams to help Rally the Vote, led by the Sacramento Kings and the group When We All Vote.
“A way that a lot of people in the sports community want to be empowered is by taking part in civic engagement and [voter] registrations,” Billings-Burford said, adding that once RISE is a public charity it will have more leeway in these activities. “We need to have the legal designation that allows us to empower people in as many ways as possible.”
RISE’s biggest win, the one it’s most proud of, involves NASCAR, which has sent more than 1,000 people, including drivers, through RISE training on racial sensitivity. In June 2020, NASCAR banned the Confederate flag from its tracks, after years of resistance. Steve Phelps, NASCAR’s president, is a RISE director.
“They’re an organization now that is direct and serious and responsive, and they use it as learning opportunities if the person is willing to learn,” Billings-Burford said, adding that the NASCAR of today has “become a more culturally competent organization.”
Ross said he’s in favor of making RISE a public charity and applauded the job its operational leaders are doing.
“It’s growing so fast and people want to be part of it and help it grow,” he wrote. “I made a commitment for $30 million, and the work is essential.”
He added: “Our collective work is not finished. RISE needs resources to educate and empower groups and I believe it is important to fund these efforts. Growing up in Detroit, I saw firsthand what racism did to tear apart our community, destroy lives and further inequality. I started RISE based on the belief that our nation must address the scourge of racism directly to achieve true unity.”
We don’t know what direction Ross, Flores and Grier agreed to take with the Dolphins when Flores was first hired.
If you read Flores’ lawsuit, it’s as simple as this: Flores wanted to win from day one. Ross was content to lead the league in losing that first year if that meant getting the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.
At one point in Flores’ first season, the team was on track to contend for the first pick. Going into Week 9, the Dolphins were 0-7 with a bye. The Cincinnati Bengals were 0-8. Three other teams had a single win.
And then a strange thing happened. Flores’ methods started to take effect. The Dolphins won five of their final nine games and lost out on the first pick. The Bengals — who finished last in the league at 2-14 — won the sweepstakes to select LSU quarterback Joe Burrow.
Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores (center) during a game against the New York Jets on Nov. 21, 2021, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
This year, Burrow led the Bengals to the Super Bowl. The Dolphins went 9-8 and missed the playoffs. Flores finished his third season as head coach with an overall record of 24-25 and Ross decided to pull the plug.
In his lawsuit, Flores argues that the decision was an act of discrimination. Ross’ description of Flores as a “poor collaborator” carries “discriminatory undertones” and is related to the tanking allegation, the suit says.
“Over the remaining year and a half of Mr. Flores’ tenure at the helm of the Miami Dolphins, he was routinely made to feel uncomfortable based upon his decision not [to] tank in order to secure the top pick in the 2019 draft,” the suit says.
“… no white head coach has ever been subjected to such ridicule over winning and holding the spirit of the game in such high regard,” it continues. “In fact, Mr. Flores was ultimately terminated and subsequently defamed throughout the media and the league as he was labeled by the Dolphins brass as someone who was difficult 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.”
From the beginning, Ross has defended himself against Flores’ tampering and tanking charges. Last week, after the league concluded the tanking offer was a joke but the tampering had in fact occurred, Ross released a statement professing his innocence but saying he wouldn’t fight the decision.
“The independent investigation cleared our organization on any issues relating to tanking and all of Brian Flores’ other allegations. As I have said all along, these allegations were false, malicious and defamatory, and this issue is now put to rest,” Ross said in a statement. “With regards to tampering, I strongly disagree with the conclusions and the punishment. However, I will accept the outcome because the most important thing is that there be no distractions for our team as we begin an exciting and winning season.”
Attempts to reach Flores through his agent, lawyers and the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he took a job as a defensive assistant coach, were unsuccessful. He reacted to the league’s findings on Ross in a statement:
“I am thankful that the NFL’s investigator found my factual allegations against Stephen Ross are true. At the same time, I am disappointed to learn that the investigator minimized Mr. Ross’s offers and pressure to tank games especially when I wrote and submitted a letter at the time to Dolphins executives documenting my serious concerns regarding this subject at the time which the investigator has in her possession,” the statement read. “While the investigator found that the Dolphins had engaged in impermissible tampering of ‘unprecedented scope and severity,’ Mr. Ross will avoid any meaningful consequence.”
In April, two Black coaches, Ray Horton and former Arizona Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks, joined the class-action suit. The Cardinals, Tennessee Titans and Texans were added as defendants.
In the 2020 draft, the Dolphins ended up selecting Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa with the fifth overall pick. Tagovailoa, going into his third season, will now work with new head coach Mike McDaniel, the former offensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers. Ross is high on his current head coach-quarterback duo.
“I believe in Mike McDaniel,” Ross told Andscape. “He is a nontraditional thinker. Tua is growing and we’re excited to see what he and the entire team can do this year.”
Ross said his goal is to bring a Super Bowl championship to Miami — and it didn’t sound like political controversies or the Flores lawsuit were dimming his energy. When I asked about his plans for owning the Dolphins, his response was succinct.
“I plan to own the team forever.”
But for the next two months, Ross will find himself benched as a representative of the Dolphins.