It’s been known for a while that the NFL’s team owners will meet today, August 9, in Minnesota. It’s been known for a while that they’ll vote on the purchase of the Denver Broncos by Wal-Mart heirs. It’s been known for a while that, barring something dramatically and completely unexpected, at least 24 owners will approve the transaction, making Rob Walton the richest owner in the league, by far.
Rob Walton, the son of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, has a net worth in the range of $70 billion. The next richest owner in the NFL, David Tepper, has less than $17 billion. (Maybe it’s time for a bake sale.)
It’s also expected that (as PFT reported last week), while the owners happen to be gathered for one item of business, the Commissioner will issue a stern reminder to all owners about two rules that became very relevant last Tuesday, when the league suspended Dolphins owner Stephen Ross through the sixth game of the 2022 regular season for rampant tampering with Tom Brady and Sean Payton. Ross also got a pass for tanking, even though the league found he essentially lit the fuse on an effort to lose in 2019, with the goal of getting a higher draft pick in 2020. (He most definitely was not, as some have suggested “exonerated” for his attempted tank. At best, he was excused of it.)
While the Commissioner may huff and puff about tampering, the league knows the rule can’t be properly enforced. Tampering is rampant. In this case, tampering became the apparent basis for a compromise punishment, since the league is not inclined to find that tanking has occurred in any form.
Earlier this year, the league gave the Browns a pass for a four-year plan that clearly prioritized other factors over winning games. Did the Browns deliberately try to lose any specific games? No. Did they incentivize factors that would make it harder to win games, like stockpiling future picks and not spending cash? Absolutely.
Regardless, the NFL won’t use this specific T word without an I shot the clerk-style confession. And no one will be dumb enough to ever admit to trying to lose specific games.
The implications would be too problematic for the league and for specific individuals, especially in an age of legalized gambling. From civil lawsuits to potential prosecutions to likely legislative efforts, any finding by the league that a team didn’t do all it could to win a given game would become a huge mess. Even though it has happened before. And will surely happen again.
The NFL maintains a system for crafting draft order that clearly creates a bright line connection between failing now and succeeding later. The temptation to tank is every bit as obvious as the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. In this case, however, that apple is going to be eaten annually, by the worst team in the league. Once a franchise realizes its current season has been lost, why not seize upon the silver lining that comes from continuing to lose?
The Buccaneers absolutely did it in 2014, pulling half the starters in a Week 17 game against the Saints, blowing a double-digit lead and securing the first pick in the 2015 draft. Some are convinced the Eagles did it in the last game of the 2020 season, when a potential win by the Eagles over Washington was essentially squandered when Philly removed Jalen Hurts for Nate Sudfeld. (For more on tanking and the various other things the NFL does, and sometimes doesn’t, handle the right way, check out Playmakers.)
For the Dolphins, Ross apparently was saying it’s better to draft higher in 2020 than win in 2019 long before it became clear that the Dolphins wouldn’t be serious contenders that year. For the Browns, it was even more vague and detached from the late-season aha! moment that results in a team realizing it has no chance to make the playoffs — and a real chance to secure the top pick in the next draft.
To summarize, the NFL can’t stop tampering and it won’t stop tanking, unless someone is dumb enough to admit to a specific effort to lose games. On Tuesday, the Commissioner quite likely will deliver some pointed remarks about both policies. Moving forward, it will be a shock if anything really changes.
Teams that tamper will probably be more careful. Teams tempted to tank will trust that they’ll never be punished for it unless they declare their intentions on the video board at the stadium.