It is well-known that the National Football League exists to protect and enrich the 31 billionaires who own shares in it, plus whatever passes for the ownership of the Green Bay Packers. Some of them just need the money. Some need protection, mostly from their own worst instincts.
But in the rare case that a franchise owner needs to be upbraided, the instrument of the sanction must be subtle as well as acceptable to the guilty, so the league office deserves credit for finding the best way to embarrass Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross: by defending him in such a shoddy way that it may as well have been a declaration of guilt.
Ross, who has been accused by his team’s former head coach Brian Flores of offering $100,000 per game deliberately lost to give the Dolphins a better draft choice, was fined $1.5 million and suspended until October 17, but he was not convicted of tanking, or of offering a bounty for tanking. Instead Ross was punished for tampering repeatedly with Tom Brady while he was both a Patriot and a Buccaneer, and with former New Orleans head coach Sean Payton, through their mutual agent Don Yee. In addition, the Dolphins will lose two draft choices, a first this coming year and a third in 2024, because trying to do illicit business with Tom Brady and Sean Payton by stealing from partners Bob Kraft, Joel Glazer, and Gayle Benson deserves some sanction.
What the statement by Commissioner/pool floatie Roger Goodell said was this:
The investigators found tampering violations of unprecedented scope and severity, I know of no prior instance of a team violating the prohibition on tampering with both a head coach and star player, to the potential detriment of multiple other clubs, over a period of several years. Similarly, I know of no prior instance in which ownership was so directly involved in the violations.
In addition to giving Ross a lightweight punishment for a lightweight crime that didn’t actually come off, the league statement also dealt with the Flores matter in the most cavalierly laughable way, constructing a denial so preposterous—he was just joking when he offered his coach money to lose games, you see—that it is probably meant to be read as, “Hell yes, he did that too, but our principal job is to provide cover for the old rogue bastard.”
Again, Captain Goodell from the bridge of the SS Here’s Some Twisted Logic For Your Ass:
Every club is expected to make a good faith effort to win every game. The integrity of the game, and public confidence in professional football, demand no less. An owner or senior executive must understand the weight that his or her words carry, and the risk that a comment will be taken seriously and acted upon, even if that is not the intent or expectation. Even if made in jest and not intended to be taken seriously, comments suggesting that draft position is more important than winning can be misunderstood and carry with them an unnecessary potential risk to the integrity of the game. The comments made by Mr. Ross did not affect Coach Flores’ commitment to win and the Dolphins competed to win every game. Coach Flores is to be commended for not allowing any comment about the relative importance of draft position to affect his commitment to win throughout the season.
So let’s review. Flores’s stand against Ross’s crude bribery attempt is used as proof that Ross is innocent of the thing Flores is being commended for resisting. Innocence by virtue of spectacular guilt—no wonder Goodell makes $64 million a year. Kurt Vonnegut couldn’t return from the dead and write that statement.
No, we can assume with almost metaphysical certitude that Ross did indeed tamper with Brady and then Payton through Yee to save his franchise from his own shoddy decision-making, and it is such a short walk from that to being Flores’s Arnold Rothstein that it may as well be tied back-to-back with Yeegate as part of a greater “pissing all over the integrity of the league” charge. Goodell came so close to touching the third rail of calling out an owner for misdeeds that he may as well be Kevin Durant’s foot.
Ross will pull the fine out of the petty-cash cigar box in his third bathroom. He will show up at the team facility whenever he wants but will take slightly better care not to be seen there. He will live hidden from the public eye, as most owners prefer anyway. The punishment for being an idiot in the NFL is, after all, minimal to the point of being microscopic.
But Goodell’s defense of Ross is telling. “He was just kidding” is “My unicorn ate and shat my homework,” and nobody should think otherwise, least of all Ross. Then again, Goodell created deniability for himself just as he provided deniability for Ross, and they can both just shrug in the international sign of “Yeah, you got me.” Two guilty men understanding that rules of evidence are as elastic as the rules for pass interference.