Claims by NFL coaches over losing incentives pose legal risks for the league

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Feb 7 (Reuters) – A lawsuit filed last week accusing the National Football League of racist hiring practices has brought to light allegations that owners secretly offered inducements to coaches to lose, which could lead to class action lawsuits for hundreds of millions of dollars and even criminal liability, experts say.

The indictment comes at a time of explosive growth in legal sports betting and just over a week before the league’s Super Bowl extravaganza.

The two teams at the center of the claims – the Miami Dolphins and the Cleveland Browns – have denied claims that they want their coaches to pitch games to improve their chances of picking top NFL Draft prospects. But the possibility of such actions threatens to engulf them and the league in player lawsuits, as well as civil and criminal investigations, according to five legal experts who spoke to Reuters.

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If the claims turn out to be true, the teams’ owners could be temporarily banned or even stripped of their franchises, experts said.

Evidence will be key, they said, which could involve corroborating testimony from assistant coaches and players, as well as text messages or emails.

“Does anyone have any hard evidence that X will pay Y dollars if you lose Z game?” said John Holden, a professor specializing in sports legal issues at Oklahoma State University.

The NFL plans to investigate allegations by two former head coaches, according to a person familiar with the league.

Brian Flores, who was fired last month by the Miami Dolphins after leading them to winning records over the past two seasons, said in a lawsuit filed last Tuesday that owner Stephen Ross offered him $100,000 per loss in 2019 to help the team achieve a higher record. draft in 2020. read more

The following day, Hue Jackson claimed he was offered losing inducements while in charge of the Cleveland Browns from 2016 to 2018, when his team lost 36 of 40 games. The NFL College Player Draft awards the top picks to its teams with the worst records.

The Dolphins said any claims the team failed to act with integrity were “incorrect” and Ross called the allegations “false, malicious and defamatory.” He said he welcomed an investigation by the league.

The Browns said the claim that anyone “was instigated to deliberately lose games is categorically false.”

GROWTH OF SPORTS BETTING

The increase in sports betting in the United States since a 2018 Supreme Court ruling dramatically expanded the activity has compounded the potential risks associated with the claims.

Sports leagues have partnered with gambling companies or lobbied state legislators for a share of the booming market. The NFL is the most bet sport.

Class action lawsuits filed by players could claim hundreds of millions of dollars from the league and teams, legal experts say.

Major League Baseball, the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox have been sued by fantasy sports competitors after it emerged the teams cheated by stealing receivers’ signs in 2017-19.

This case was thrown out because the judge concluded that the contestants were too far removed from cheating.

But if an owner paid a coach to lose, “it would create a much stronger class action lawsuit than the one against the Houston Astros,” said Marc Edelman, a professor specializing in sports law at Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business.

Flores said he does not accept the offer of money to launch games, but even so, legal risks remain.

If prosecutors can prove there was a scheme or conspiracy to influence the outcome, it could violate federal sports bribery law, Holden said. The law was used to prosecute those involved in a points-shaving scandal at Boston College during the 1978–79 season and to bring corruption charges against officials at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. , Utah.

Officials in states that have adopted regulated sports betting can also investigate if they believe the owners have damaged the game or violated a state gaming law.

Paul Haagen, who teaches sports law at Duke University School of Law, said whether incentives were offered would depend on how they were used.

If coaches were compensated for not fielding the best possible team because the owner wanted to try inexperienced players with potential, there would likely be little legal risk.

“If it takes the form of inducing him to lose,” Haagen said, “I think that’s reason for the commissioner to take action to strip him of the franchise.”

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Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Bill Berkrot

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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