Could the NFL Have Criminal Problems?
Stunning Allegations by Former Miami Dolphins Head Coach Brian Flores and Others May Implicate Criminal Activity
In a remarkable class action lawsuit filed against the National Football League, the Miami Dolphins, the New York Giants and the Denver Broncos, former Dolphins coach Brian Flores alleges that the owner of the Dolphins, Stephen Ross, offered him payment to lose games in January of 2022, so that the team would be in a better position in the NFL draft. Since then, at least one other former coach, Hue Jackson of the Cleveland Browns, has come forward saying he has proof he was paid to lose games. Even more stunning is that Jackson also alleges that when he presented NFL higher-ups with evidence, it was ignored.
If Flores’ and Jackson’s contentions are proven true, the civil class action suit may not be the only legal headache the NFL could face.
The civil case was filed in the United States District Court, Southern District of New York (Docket No. 1:22-cv-00871) on Feb. 1, 2022, asserting claims of systemic racial discrimination by the NFL. The detailed and well-drafted complaint, which relies heavily on statistics and the personal allegations of Flores, makes the case for violations of civil rights under a federal statute and various New York and New Jersey statutes.
What is shocking – or maybe not so shocking to some – is an allegation that Ross wanted Coach Flores to “tank” games to place the Dolphins in a better position to secure a high first-round draft pick. The allegation is pretty clear in paragraph 14 of the complaint:
“In January 2022, Mr. Flores, who spent three years as the Head Coach of Defendant Miami Dolphins, Ltd. found himself without a job. He was fired by the Dolphins after leading the team to its first back-to- back winning seasons since 2003. The purported basis for his termination was alleged poor collaboration. In reality, the writing had been on the wall since Mr. Flores’ first season as Head Coach of the Dolphins, when he refused his owner’s directive to ‘tank’ for the first pick in the draft. Indeed, during the 2019 season, Miami’s owner, Stephen Ross, told Mr. Flores that he would pay him $100,000 for every loss, and the team’s General Manager, Chris Grier, told Mr. Flores that ‘Steve’ was ‘mad’ that Mr. Flores’ success in winning games that year was ‘compromising [the team’s] draft position.’”
This begs the question, if these allegations prove true, and the allegations of Mr. Jackson are also true, is there some criminal jeopardy for the Miami Dolphins, the Cleveland Browns, and the NFL itself? Here are just a few ways that could happen:
- Florida has specific criminal statutes that criminalize “Bribery in athletic contests” and “Commercial Bribery.” The Bribery in athletic contest statute reads as follows: “Whoever gives, promises, offers or conspires to give, promise or offer, to anyone who participates or expects to participate in any professional or amateur game, contest, match, race or sport; or to any umpire, referee, judge or other official of such game, contest, match, race or sport; or to any owner, manager, coach or trainer of, or to any relative of, or to any person having any direct, indirect, remote or possible connection with, any team, individual, participant or prospective participant in any such professional or amateur game, contest, match, race or sport, or the officials aforesaid, any bribe, money, goods, present, reward or any valuable thing whatsoever, or any promise, contract or agreement whatsoever, with intent to influence him or her or them to lose or cause to be lost any game, contest, match, race or sport, or to limit his or her or their or any person’s or any team’s margin of victory in any game, contest, match, race, or sport, or to fix or throw any game, contest, match, race or sport, shall be guilty of a felony of the third degree.” This clearly includes managers of professional sports teams.
- Ohio also has a law that prohibits tampering with sport. It says, “No person, with purpose to defraud or knowing that the person is facilitating a fraud, shall engage in conduct designed to corrupt the outcome of any of the following: (1) The subject of a bet; (2) A contest of knowledge, skill, or endurance that is not an athletic or sporting event; (3) A scheme or game of chance; (4) Bingo. No person shall knowingly do any of the following: (1) Offer, give, solicit, or accept anything of value to corrupt the outcome of an athletic or sporting event; (2) Engage in conduct designed to corrupt the outcome of an athletic or sporting event.”
- In addition, if the NFL knew that these types of illegal activities were happening and turned a blind eye to them, that could potentially expose the league to larger issues of criminal conspiracy. And since there are now allegations in at least two different states, criminal statutes at play could be both at the state and federal levels. Depending on how the facts play out, there may well be exposure under the Federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). Notably, RICO was originally passed in order to prosecute large and sophisticated criminal enterprises like the mafia and other nefarious entities.
All of these questions about game tampering become larger when one considers the proliferation of sports gambling across the entire United States. How many people from how many places were cheated out of a legitimate bet because of potential game tampering? And what of all the players and non- colluding coaches and personnel whose careers were sabotaged and/or cut short by the stigma of being affiliated with a losing team? While Brian Flores may be the first litigant to publicly allege harm, he may have opened the floodgates to countless others who have been harmed in ways that can only be imagined at this point.
It’s likely the NFL and its teams are going to serve up a number of defenses to the allegations, including that even if such offers of payment to lose were made, they were only in jest. In any case, it will be interesting to see what discovery reveals as this litigation runs its course.
Stay tuned, as this is one heck of a fascinating lawsuit that could play out far more dramatically than any football game played on the gridiron.
Eric Marcy, Esq., chairs the Criminal and Administrative Law practices at the firm of Lyons & Associates, PC, in Somerville, N.J. He has over 35 years of criminal, civil, and civil rights litigation experience at the municipal, state, and federal levels. Marcy can be reached at 908-575-9777 or via www.lyonspc.com.