Did the Browns Lose on Purpose?
A few years ago, just after NBC Sports got the rights to Premier League soccer, I went to England to learn more about it. As you might imagine, it was an absolute blast. I had a million questions and all sorts of people were happy to answer every one of them … while asking a few of their own about American sports.
And, looking back, it seems that our questions revolved around one giant difference.
I kept asking them about a league where every team was essentially on its own.
And they kept asking me about American leagues where teams were given all sorts of goodies just for losing.
It was striking just how foreign this “being rewarded for losing” concept was to them. I most vividly remember this wonderful conversation with Sean Dyche, the Burnley manager*, and how he just couldn’t quite get his arms around leagues that gave the biggest losers the best young players and, in the case of the NFL, the easiest schedule.
*Sean is the longest serving manager in the Premier League, having been there since 2012; but Burnley is buried in last place right now and in imminent danger of being relegated.
It’s not like Dyche was OPPOSED to the American way of doing things — he just couldn’t quite make much sense of it. Burnley, then the smallest town to ever have a Premier League team, had only just been promoted after years and years in the wilderness. It was a bit like giving, I don’t know, Rapid City, South Dakota, an NFL team (which I think is a good idea, by the way).
And in celebration, Burnley was basically given some television money, a few demands to upgrade the stadium and told to go ahead and compete.
“Level playing field, right?” he said with a smile on his face. “Here’s a story for you. We played Manchester United, OK? Angel Di Maria cost $60 million pounds, right? The whole history of the Burnley club, we’ve only spent $45 million. The whole history.”
That’s the philosophy of the most popular league in the world: You’re on your own. And this is why, over the last 25 years, the only teams to win the Premier League are Manchester United (10 times), Chelsea (5 times), Manchester City (5 times), Arsenal (3 times), Liverpool (once) and Leicester City, in one of the greatest upsets in the history of sport. Even massive clubs like Tottenham or West Ham don’t really have much of a chance of actually winning the Premier League.
And so the idea if you are a fan of one of the 15 or 16 clubs that enters each year without a real chance of winning it all is to seek smaller goals. A home draw with Man City, for example. A top-four finish so that you qualify for UEFA Champions League. A good performance in the FA Cup. A victory over a hated rival. A late surge to avoid relegation.
But the main point is this: There is absolutely no advantage to losing. None.
We like to have fun here at Joe Blogs. Baseball. Football. Tennis. Chess. Family. Basketball. Music. Infomercials. Movies. Olympics. Hockey. Nonsense. Magic. In short, it’s an adventure. I hope you’ll come along.
And, as we know, American sports are very different — I think it’s because American sports are built entirely around hope. Sure, American sports leagues used to be colder and more indifferent to losers. Baseball led the way. There were two leagues and the winner of each league played in the World Series. There was no draft. There was no salary cap or luxury tax. There was no reward for teams that finished second, much less teams that finished eighth.
The Washington Senators were so hopeless, someone wrote a Broadway show about it. The Chicago Cubs were so hopeless, someone wrote a Broadway show about it. The St. Louis Browns were so hopeless, they tried crazy stunts just to get people to come to the ballpark. The Kansas City Athletics were so hopeless, they traded their best players to the Yankees just to stay afloat.
The NFL had its own version of this — they too had two leagues, an American and National, and only the winner of each played in the championship game. There wasn’t much competition. From 1950 to 1955, for example, the Cleveland Browns played either the Los Angeles Rams or the Detroit Lions in the championship game.
But things changed very rapidly in football as television came sweeping in, and Lamar Hunt founded the renegade American Football League, and Steve Sabol and NFL Films made pro football seem so romantic and heroic. The league realized it was in the hope business. And so they created a Super Bowl, and they began inviting more and more teams to compete for it — in 1970, for instance, eight of the 26 teams made the playoffs. By 1990, it was 12 out of 28. This year, it was 14 out of 32. Hope!
And then you know about giving the worst team in the NFL the first pick in the draft. Hope!
And then you know about giving bad teams easier schedules. Hope!
Look at the Cincinnati Bengals! Moribund franchise. Owner who pretty famously doesn’t want to spend money. They would have been relegated in the Premier League many years ago, perhaps never to return.
But in the NFL, they simply had to bottom out and play so badly for a full season that the league would award them the first pick in the draft. Then it so happened to be that first pick was the incredible Joe Burrow.
Then the Bengals stunk again the next year, so they got a schedule which featured the Jaguars and Lions, which is always nice (they also got the Jets, but somehow lost to them). Then they went 10-7, which isn’t great but was good enough in their lousy division to get them into the playoffs — and with a home game to boot. They held on against the Raiders, somehow beat the Titans, won in overtime against the Chiefs, and now they’re going to the Super Bowl.
It’s a quintessentially American sports story. It would make absolutely no sense at all in England. It is both a rags-to-riches story AND a story of incentivizing and encouraging failure, depending on which way you want to look at it.
And it leads us finally to a question that we can’t answer but will try anyway: Did Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslem pay his football people, such as head coach Hue Jackson, extra money to lose games?
A little more history: The idea of football teams tanking for a top draft pick goes back a long, long, long way. I don’t have time to trace it all the way to the beginning but I can tell you that there were stories in 1968 about the Buffalo Bills and the Philadelphia Eagles trying to decide if it was better to try and actually win or better to lose so they could draft O.J. Simpson with the first pick.
“We’d love to have O.J. Simpson,” a Bills vice president named Jack Horrigan said. “But we love to win more.”
They might have “loved” winning but they sure didn’t do much of it — the Bills went 1-12-1 that year and they beat out the 2-12 Eagles in the Lose for the Juice race.
And then, through the years, there have been a few other races to the bottom — Lay down for Peyton, Suck for Luck, Bomb for Burrow, Tank for Trevor, it’s just a part of the NFL. Well, it’s a part of just about every American team sport. As you know, the tanking got so bad in the NBA that the league instituted a lottery system so that you didn’t just automatically get the first pick by being the worst team. In baseball, tanking isn’t just about the draft — there are numerous incentives to lose, which is why a good percentage of MLB teams go into each season with every intention of doing so.
But let’s not get too far away from the point again: This week, former Dolphins coach Brian Flores sued the NFL and specifically three teams over racial discrimination and hiring practices. There is so much to talk about there, but one fascinating charge in his lawsuit is that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross offered to pay Flores a $100,000 bonus for every loss, in a brazen effort to get the first pick. Ross has strongly denied the charge, and we’ll have to let all that play out — but it is telling that the year in question was 2019, and the top pick in the next draft was, yes, Joe Burrow.
From a purely economic and future prospects perspective, it absolutely would have been worth paying Flores $400,000 to lose four more games so the Dolphins could draft Burrow. I’m not saying it happened; I don’t know. I’m just saying that the NFL system makes that a real temptation.
Shortly after Flores' lawsuit, Kimberly Diemert — executive director of the Hue Jackson Foundation — alleged the Haslam paid some extra cash to Jackson and other executives for losing 31 of 32 games in the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
I mention Diemert specifically because her allegations are pretty straightforward.
Yeah, she basically said that Jackson has records that show the Browns paid bonuses to Sashi Brown, Andrew Berry, Paul DePodesta and Jackson for tanking and the NFL knew all about it. You can’t get much more straightforward than that.
The Browns, naturally, called the whole thing “complete fabricated.”
And Jackson himself has been, um, cagier about all this. When someone made a joke about how it couldn’t be true because if Jackson were paid for losses he’d be on the Forbes richest people list, Jackson responded: “Trust me it was a good number!” So that suggests he admitted that he DID get paid to lose.
But then when he was interviewed on ESPN, he was a whole lot vaguer about the whole thing, suggesting that there was an intricate plan he didn’t fully understand about losing the first two years so they could win in the third year. He added that he did get a bonus, but he wasn’t really sure why, and anyway he wasn’t interested in the bonus, and, yeah, it didn’t sound straightforward at all.
And all of it has led me to three disparate thoughts …
Thought 1: The Browns absolutely tried to lose as many games as they could in 2016 and 2017.
No doubt about it. Consider this the overriding thought. They can say whatever they want to say, deny in every way they want to deny, but every single thing about the way they ran the organization in 2016 and 2017 tells you they were totally tanking and had absolutely no interest whatsoever in improving the team. They were stockpiling draft picks, saving room under the salary cap, and making no moves whatsoever to get better.
That’s not to say the players tanked; they undoubtedly did not. But the Browns purposely put together a team that had no chance to win — I mean, come on, they started rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer 15 times in 2017 — so they could get the top draft pick, save a lot of money and be in position to compete in the years ahead.
Of this, I feel almost complete certainty.
Thought 2: There doesn’t seem to be any reason to pay simple bonuses to lose. That’s too obvious.
This is the part that I struggle with: It would be incredibly, incredibly dumb to pay large bonuses to anyone for losing. That would be so easy to track. That would be so easy to leak. Yes, the NFL is filled with impossibly arrogant people who think they are smarter than everyone else on earth, who know that people will do just about anything just to coach and play in the league, so they could have bet on never getting caught.
But why would they do that? I don’t know Stephen Ross, but he would have to be one dumb SOB to ever offer to pay $100,000 per loss.
So, if such incentives were really happening, I suspect they were much more clandestine. And maybe that’s what Hue Jackson is saying now; maybe the Browns put in all sorts of bonuses that purportedly were for achieving this goal or that goal, but really were just bonuses for losing. It wouldn’t have been that hard to do — like maybe they offer a bonus for continuing to start Kizer with the pretend goal of “developing our quarterback of the future,” while the real goal is “go 0-16 and draft our ACTUAL quarterback of the future.”
Or maybe Jackson got a bonus for playing the youngest team in the NFL, with the pretend goal of “building for the road ahead” while the real goal was “go 0-16 and build for the road ahead with higher draft picks.”
There’s one other point I want to make about Hue Jackson and the Browns — I don’t know what it means or if it means anything, but it has always bothered me: He seemed entirely shocked and outraged, way out of proportion, when the Browns fired him. I mean, the guy was 3-36-1. He had to see it coming, right? He had to know that his firing was inevitable.
But he didn’t seem to know any of that. He was really angry. At the time, I told myself it was just Jackson being completely out of touch with the reality that surrounded him; I mean he was an absolutely terrible coach for the Browns. But looking back, maybe it was something else. Maybe he was being told some things and promised some things. I guess we’ll have to wait and find out.
Thought 3: When you make losing attractive, some people will do whatever it takes to lose.
There are much, much bigger issues in the Flores lawsuit than this — he basically brings to light what we all know to be true: The NFL’s hiring practices have been and continue to be racist. The problem was so bad that they had to institute a rule just to force teams to INTERVIEW African-American candidates. Then they had to strengthen that rule repeatedly in order to get people to SERIOUSLY interview African-American candidates. Then, they had to be sued by one brave coach willing to throw his own professional future away just so people might take real notice of the oh-so-obvious fact that there’s just one black head coach in the entire league.
This is at the heart of what Brian Flores is charging.
The tanking stuff is just crossfire.
But — and I hate to say this — I think it’s the tanking stuff that has a better shot of forcing real change in the NFL. Because if — BIG IF — there is evidence that there were owners actually paying extra to lose, and the league was aware of it, holy cow, it’s a gargantuan problem, one that could involve the Department of Justice and Congress and who even knows what else. I mean, I’m obviously no lawyer, but this is a league knee-deep in gambling. This is a league fully representing itself as a public trust. If people inside the league are paying to lose, this is akin to the 1919 Black Sox. This is way worse than Pete Rose.
Because of this, I can’t imagine that there will be a direct line from payment to losses. I can’t imagine there will be actual documentation of bonuses for losses. It feels to me the NFL is way too lawyered up for that. But there will be smoke for sure. Lots of smoke. NFL teams have been trying to lose for years because there’s money and glory in losing. The 2016 and 2017 Cleveland Browns were a sham, a mockery, they went 1-31, and by all signs were happy to do so.
Well, Hue Jackson wasn’t happy to do so. Those seasons led to his eventual firing, and once he was fired after that fiasco there certainly wasn’t going to be another NFL team that would hire him. He’s now coaching at Grambling State University. I guess we’ll find out in time if the Browns paid him a little extra for his troubles.
I am a moderate but definitely a free market guy. I think a big part of the problem is that the NFL operates outside of the laws and principles that punish bad behavior and incompetence. Until this year the Bengals have been run terribly. And the Dolphins have been run terribly for 10-20 years. The Browns too. And they have been very profitable because market principles don’t apply to them. Which is the problem imo
My point about corporate behavior is just the belief that “they would not do something so obviously dumb” is naïve. I also believe that Hue Jackson’s agent / lawyer reminded him about some kind of confidentiality clause, maybe with a liquidated damages provision, in his contract, so he is changing his tune a little bit. Either way, I’m dying to see this unfold…
The schedule thing is a bit overblown. When they had 16 game schedules I could have told you 14 of the 16 games for every team for eternity. 2 games isn't that big of deal. Shoot, Tampa Bay I think had the easiest schedule this year. The bigger thing in the NFL, and the NBA, is the salary cap and salary floor. It's pretty tough for any one team to be dominant for a long time with those constraints in place.