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Fins Down: How Tanking Could Sink Miami Dolphins Owner Stephen Ross

photo of Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross

Photo Source: MGoBlog, IMG_2057.jpg, Flickr (Oct. 28, 2012), (CC BY-NC 2.0P).

By: Michael Slights*                                                                04/07/2022

Stephen Ross is in trouble.[1]

A recent lawsuit filed against the Miami Dolphins owner by a former coach revealed the startling allegation that during the 2019 NFL season, Ross offered to personally pay the coach $100,000 for every loss the team was able to secure.[2]  If the idea of Ross paying for the Dolphins to lose – in essence, acting against the interest of himself and his team – strikes you as odd, perhaps it shouldn’t.[3]  As the lawsuit alleges, Ross was engaged in the all-too-familiar practice of “tanking” his team’s season.[4]

Tanking is the process of purposefully losing games in order to secure a future benefit.[5]  For NFL teams, the benefit is usually a higher pick in the upcoming NFL Draft.[6]  However, tanking is a problematic practice within the league.[7]  As league reporters have noted, it “directly assaults the integrity of the game.”[8]  Accordingly, if the tanking allegations against Ross are true, he could face serious penalties from the NFL and the criminal justice system.[9]

Will the Owners Take Action?

Shortly after the tanking allegations were levied, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell released a statement in support of Ross.[10]  In it, Goodell claimed the tanking accusations were “without merit” and that the league would take steps to defend the Dolphins owner.[11]

The support did not last long.[12]  A few days later, Goodell abruptly changed his tune and launched a league-backed investigation into Ross’s alleged tanking attempts.[13]  Although the investigation is ongoing, credible reports suggest the investigation will conclude that Ross did attempt to pay for losses.[14]

Ross, for his part, reportedly knows this outcome is likely.[15]  The embattled owner, who at one point was “eager to defend” his “personal integrity” against the allegations, now plans to claim he made the offers as a joke.[16]

It is likely that Goodell will not find the joke to be funny.[17]  If the investigation does, in fact, confirm the allegations to be true, Ross and the Dolphins will face serious penalties from the league.[18]  These penalties could include, but are not limited to, massive fines and lost future draft picks.[19]

Additionally, Ross finds himself in grave danger of being removed as Dolphins owner.[20]  As Goodell recently reaffirmed, NFL owners have the authority to remove another owner from the league.[21]  Such a removal is rare, but not unprecedented.[22]  To do so requires a three-fourths vote among the other thirty-one owners.[23]  Given the seriousness of the allegations against Ross, it is possible – if not plausible – the other owners could take this action.[24]

What’s more, although Ross has legitimate cause for concern over league sanctions, he should also be uneasy about his potential exposure to criminal liability.[25]  If the allegations against him are proven true, state and federal prosecutors will likely be eager to speak with him.[26]

The Dark Cloud of Criminal Investigation

The Sports Bribery Act criminalizes the conduct Ross allegedly engaged in under federal law.[27]  In sum, the statute outlaws individuals from influencing the outcome of sporting contests by way of bribery.  Under the law, it does not matter if the bribery offer is accepted; simply making the offer is enough to subject an individual to criminal liability.[28]  If the league investigation proves the tanking allegations to be true, Ross will have violated federal criminal law.[29]

On the other hand, even if Ross does manage to escape federal criminal penalty, he still must worry about liability at the state level.[30]  As a state that plays host to substantial sports activity, Florida has “legislated more comprehensively” in the area of sports-related criminal law.[31]  For example, Florida has enacted a sports bribery statute that extends criminal liability to “. . . owners . . . having any direct, indirect, remote, or possible connection with [manipulating] a team or match participant.”[32]  The statute goes beyond influencing the outcome of the game and criminalizes attempts to simply alter the course of play.[33]  Thus, Florida prosecutors could take an interest in Ross’s offer of financial incentive to lose games, as well. [34]

Running from the League and the Law

As with any lawsuit, the allegations made against Ross detail only one side of the story.[35]  There remains a chance the Dolphins owner will remain a part of the league and avoid any criminal liability.[36]  But as he senses the walls closing in, only one can conclusion can be reached.[37]

Stephen Ross is in trouble.[38]

*Staff Writer, Jeffrey S. Moorad Sports Law Journal, J.D. Candidate, May 2022, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.


[1] See Patrik Walker, Brian Flores Lawsuit: Dolphins’ Stephen Ross Could Lose Team if Tanking Allegations Proven True, per Report, CBS Sports (Feb. 14, 2022, 10:06 AM), (detailing allegations against Ross).

[2] See id. (detailing Feb. 2022 lawsuit filed against Ross by former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, who alleged “[R]oss offered as much as $100,000 for every loss the team landed in 2019.”).

[3] See Mike Florio, Tanking Allegation Could Take Down Stephen Ross, Pro Football Talk (Feb. 1, 2022, 7:18 PM EST), (detailing Ross’s plan to lose in order to secure higher spot in upcoming draft).

[4] See Walker, supra note 1 (outlining tanking allegations).

[5] See Ryan Riddle, Why NFL Teams Don’t Tank for a Better Draft Position, Bleacher Rep. (Dec. 27, 2014), (defining practice of tanking).

[6] See id. (describing benefit of “. . . a brighter, more promising future [for tanking NFL teams].”).

[7] See Florio, supra note 3 (“[Tanking] directly assaults the integrity of the game, and in an era of legalized gambling it can’t go ignored or unpunished.”).

[8] See id. (describing problems with tanking).

[9] See Mike Florio, Storm Clouds Gather for Stephen Ross, Pro Football Talk (Feb. 14, 2022, 2:40 PM), (noting league sanctions could be “least of” Ross’s concerns if prosecutors look at his case).

[10] See Walker, supra note 1 (noting Goodell’s initial support for Ross).

[11] See id. (highlighting league’s initial reaction to tanking allegations).

[12] See id. (noting Goodell’s “definitive about-face” over tanking allegations).

[13] See id. (describing league investigation “into claims Ross was attempting to pay for losses”).

[14] See Florio, supra note 9 (“There’s a belief that the league’s investigation will conclude that Ross did indeed make the offer [to tank].”).

[15] See id. (“Ross apparently knows [he is in trouble].”).

[16] See id. (“Already, there’s a sense emerging that Ross will claim he was joking.”).

[17] See id. (“I doubt Goodell will have any sympathy for that defense.”).

[18] See id. (“If the allegations are proven, it won’t be good for Ross.”).

[19] See Walker, supra note 1 (noting possible penalties for Ross).

[20] See id. (describing potential ownership loss as penalty).

[21] See id. (quoting Goodell saying, “I do believe that clubs do have the authority to remove an owner from the league”).

[22] See id. (noting former Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson’s removal after racial slurs, sexual harassment allegations).

[23] See id. (detailing requirement for ownership removal).

[24] See id. (“Given the accusations [against Ross], it is entirely possible [he is removed].”).

[25] See Florio, supra note 9 (noting potential for criminal sanctions.)

[26] See id. (“If/when an ambitious prosecutor with jurisdiction over the matter [begins] poking around, Ross could be indicted.”).

[27] See Mike Florio, Stephen Ross, Jimmy Haslam Could Be Prosecuted for Violating the Sports Bribery Act, Pro Football Talk (Feb. 2, 2022, 2:47 PM EST), (describing potential for criminal liability).

[28] See Florio, supra note 27 (“Based on the language of the statute, it doesn’t matter whether the offer is accepted.”)

[29] See id. (“The mere offer of $100,000 to Flores, without more, would constitute a violation by Ross.”)

[30] For further discussion of potential criminal liability, see infra notes 32-35 and accompanying text.

[31] See Jodi S. Balsam, Criminalizing Match-Fixing as America Legalizes Sports Gambling, 31 Marq. Sports L. Rev. 1, 20 (2020) (describing efforts undertaken by Florida to expand sports-related criminal statutes).

[32] See id. (describing Florida bribery law); see also Fla. Stat. Ann. § 838.12 (West 2022).

[33] See id. (noting expansiveness of Florida statute).

[34] See Florio, supra note 9 (noting prosecutor with “jurisdiction” over Ross’s actions could indict him).

[35] See Barry Jackson, Attorneys: Claims Against Ross Could Lead to Criminal Investigation, Dolphins Punishment, Miami Herald (Feb. 6, 2022), (highlighting claims in lawsuit have not yet been substantiated).

[36] See id. (noting ongoing investigation into allegations).

[37] See Florio, supra note 9 (noting Ross’s awareness of potential punishment coming his way).

[38] See Walker, supra note 1 (providing overview of Ross controversy).