Fins Down: How Tanking Could Sink 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.
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. 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. As the lawsuit alleges, Ross was engaged in the all-too-familiar practice of “tanking” his team’s season.
Tanking is the process of purposefully losing games in order to secure a future benefit. For NFL teams, the benefit is usually a higher pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. However, tanking is a problematic practice within the league. As league reporters have noted, it “directly assaults the integrity of the game.” Accordingly, if the tanking allegations against Ross are true, he could face serious penalties from the NFL and the criminal justice system.
Will the Owners Take Action?
Shortly after the tanking allegations were levied, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell released a statement in support of Ross. In it, Goodell claimed the tanking accusations were “without merit” and that the league would take steps to defend the Dolphins owner.
The support did not last long. A few days later, Goodell abruptly changed his tune and launched a league-backed investigation into Ross’s alleged tanking attempts. Although the investigation is ongoing, credible reports suggest the investigation will conclude that Ross did attempt to pay for losses.
Ross, for his part, reportedly knows this outcome is likely. 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.
It is likely that Goodell will not find the joke to be funny. If the investigation does, in fact, confirm the allegations to be true, Ross and the Dolphins will face serious penalties from the league. These penalties could include, but are not limited to, massive fines and lost future draft picks.
Additionally, Ross finds himself in grave danger of being removed as Dolphins owner. As Goodell recently reaffirmed, NFL owners have the authority to remove another owner from the league. Such a removal is rare, but not unprecedented. To do so requires a three-fourths vote among the other thirty-one owners. Given the seriousness of the allegations against Ross, it is possible – if not plausible – the other owners could take this action.
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. If the allegations against him are proven true, state and federal prosecutors will likely be eager to speak with him.
The Dark Cloud of Criminal Investigation
The Sports Bribery Act criminalizes the conduct Ross allegedly engaged in under federal law. 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. If the league investigation proves the tanking allegations to be true, Ross will have violated federal criminal law.
On the other hand, even if Ross does manage to escape federal criminal penalty, he still must worry about liability at the state level. As a state that plays host to substantial sports activity, Florida has “legislated more comprehensively” in the area of sports-related criminal law. 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.” The statute goes beyond influencing the outcome of the game and criminalizes attempts to simply alter the course of play. Thus, Florida prosecutors could take an interest in Ross’s offer of financial incentive to lose games, as well. 
Running from the League and the Law
As with any lawsuit, the allegations made against Ross detail only one side of the story. There remains a chance the Dolphins owner will remain a part of the league and avoid any criminal liability. But as he senses the walls closing in, only one can conclusion can be reached.
Stephen Ross is in trouble.
*Staff Writer, Jeffrey S. Moorad Sports Law Journal, J.D. Candidate, May 2022, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.
 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), https://www.cbssports.com/nfl/news/brian-flores-lawsuit-dolphins-stephen-ross-could-lose-team-if-tanking-allegations-proven-true-per-report/ (detailing allegations against Ross).
 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.”).
 See Mike Florio, Tanking Allegation Could Take Down Stephen Ross, Pro Football Talk (Feb. 1, 2022, 7:18 PM EST), https://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2022/02/01/tanking-allegation-could-take-down-stephen-ross/ (detailing Ross’s plan to lose in order to secure higher spot in upcoming draft).
 See Walker, supra note 1 (outlining tanking allegations).
 See Ryan Riddle, Why NFL Teams Don’t Tank for a Better Draft Position, Bleacher Rep. (Dec. 27, 2014), https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2311552-why-nfl-teams-dont-tank-for-a-better-draft-position (defining practice of tanking).
 See id. (describing benefit of “. . . a brighter, more promising future [for tanking NFL teams].”).
 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.”).
 See id. (describing problems with tanking).
 See Mike Florio, Storm Clouds Gather for Stephen Ross, Pro Football Talk (Feb. 14, 2022, 2:40 PM), https://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2022/02/14/storm-clouds-gather-for-stephen-ross/ (noting league sanctions could be “least of” Ross’s concerns if prosecutors look at his case).
 See Walker, supra note 1 (noting Goodell’s initial support for Ross).
 See id. (highlighting league’s initial reaction to tanking allegations).
 See id. (noting Goodell’s “definitive about-face” over tanking allegations).
 See id. (describing league investigation “into claims Ross was attempting to pay for losses”).
 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].”).
 See id. (“Ross apparently knows [he is in trouble].”).
 See id. (“Already, there’s a sense emerging that Ross will claim he was joking.”).
 See id. (“I doubt Goodell will have any sympathy for that defense.”).
 See id. (“If the allegations are proven, it won’t be good for Ross.”).
 See Walker, supra note 1 (noting possible penalties for Ross).
 See id. (describing potential ownership loss as penalty).
 See id. (quoting Goodell saying, “I do believe that clubs do have the authority to remove an owner from the league”).
 See id. (noting former Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson’s removal after racial slurs, sexual harassment allegations).
 See id. (detailing requirement for ownership removal).
 See id. (“Given the accusations [against Ross], it is entirely possible [he is removed].”).
 See Florio, supra note 9 (noting potential for criminal sanctions.)
 See id. (“If/when an ambitious prosecutor with jurisdiction over the matter [begins] poking around, Ross could be indicted.”).
 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), https://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2022/02/02/stephen-ross-jimmy-haslam-could-be-prosecuted-for-violating-the-sports-bribery-act/ (describing potential for criminal liability).
 See Florio, supra note 27 (“Based on the language of the statute, it doesn’t matter whether the offer is accepted.”)
 See id. (“The mere offer of $100,000 to Flores, without more, would constitute a violation by Ross.”)
 For further discussion of potential criminal liability, see infra notes 32-35 and accompanying text.
 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).
 See id. (describing Florida bribery law); see also Fla. Stat. Ann. § 838.12 (West 2022).
 See id. (noting expansiveness of Florida statute).
 See Florio, supra note 9 (noting prosecutor with “jurisdiction” over Ross’s actions could indict him).
 See Barry Jackson, Attorneys: Claims Against Ross Could Lead to Criminal Investigation, Dolphins Punishment, Miami Herald (Feb. 6, 2022), https://www.miamiherald.com/sports/spt-columns-blogs/barry-jackson/article257943473.html (highlighting claims in lawsuit have not yet been substantiated).
 See id. (noting ongoing investigation into allegations).
 See Florio, supra note 9 (noting Ross’s awareness of potential punishment coming his way).
 See Walker, supra note 1 (providing overview of Ross controversy).