The billionaires’ NFL club
As Elon Musk has demonstrated, it’s really hard to tell a billionaire what to do. Generally speaking, they’ve grown accustomed to having their way, which in many cases how they become billionaires in the first place.
That is the inherent challenge with billionaire real estate developer Stephen Ross, who for the sake of this commentary is also the owner of the Miami Dolphins. Ross has found himself in trouble with the NFL for a list of reasons, all of which put NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in a bit of pickle. Ross has been accused of trying to woo the services of star quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Sean Payton while they were still under contract with other teams, a practice known as tampering and expressly against League rules. He was also accused by former head coach Brian Flores of trying to intentionally lose games, including allegedly offering Flores a $100,000 bonus for every game he tanked. Flores also implicated Ross in a class action lawsuit for systemic racism in hiring practices, an accusation that at least temporarily rocked the league establishment and its often-criticized Rooney Rule.
All of that left NFL commissioner Rodger Goodell in something of a tricky spot. Because on the one hand, his job is largely to work for the 32 billionaires that collectively constitute his employer. While Goodell may be the commissioner, he’s by no means the boss. On the other hand, Goodell has some bright lines he’s quite aware of, namely protecting the integrity of the sport. Which means any talk of throwing games is like a gasoline on a bonfire. It needs to be extinguished as soon as possible.
So that’s what Goodell has tried to do. On the charge of tampering, the NFL has taken away the Dolphins’ first round draft pick in 2023 and third pick in 2024. Ross will be suspended from all NFL activities until October 17, meaning he can’t go to his own team’s facilities, games, or anything NFL related. He’s indefinitely off all NFL owners’ committees. And he’s fined $1.5 million, which is a rounding error for someone worth over eight billion.
Just as interesting is what Goodell didn’t do. Specifically, he said League investigators found no proof of Ross trying to make Flores throw games. And he didn’t touch Flores’ accusations that the NFL operates like a modern-day plantation. Granted, that lawsuit is still pending and thus somewhat independent of this ruling. But in the case of NFL owner vs head coach, the League has spoken. That’s the reality of NFL operations, an organization that currencies in the most public space yet operates like a sports version of Skull and Bones.
Without a doubt, Roger Goodell will be criticized for what many will call a hand slap. People will compare Ross’s suspension to much longer sentences for players, including cases where players have lost a full year for recreational drug use. Such critique may be fair, if not entirely relevant given the difference between owners and players, who carry a particular currency in the League’s decision making.
And perhaps that is the most obvious reminder here. Those seeking equitable justice in the case of Stephen Ross should look elsewhere. The NFL is not a democracy, and team owners are not citizens. Trying to punish an NFL team owner is like trying to punish the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld – it’s his shop, even if he’s a jerk. Which means that Roger Goodell will do the only thing he realistically can and probably should do – find a sentence that best satisfies the public perception of this consumer product and ensures it remains as popular as ever. That, for the record, is the job the owners hire him to do. And for all the fans who are disappointed, you only have one real choice. That is, speak with your pocketbook and stop watching the NFL, or at least the Dolphins. Unfortunately, history suggests that won’t happen, which only reinforces the League’s cycle of rinse and repeat.
Now, if you want to argue about whether an organization like the NFL deserves so much public subsidy, that’s fair. And why we should never finance a private stadium for billionaires like Stephen Ross. But time and time again, we seem to keep doing exactly the opposite, saying yes every time an NFL owner threatens to move. I suppose that in the end, it’s really hard to tell a billionaire what to do.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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