Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has left the board of RISE, the nonprofit he founded seven years ago to help harness the power of sports to fight racism and champion social justice in the United States.
The billionaire real-estate mogul bankrolled the initiative with $30 million and attracted an all-star board of directors from the world of sports. He is stepping aside from RISE with a long list of accomplishments — as well as several high-profile controversies.
The news of Ross’s departure came Dec. 27 as part of a statement from RISE announcing two new co-chairs of its board of directors. NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent and NBC Sports Chairman Pete Bevacqua are now chairs, replacing former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who, along with Ross, will become an emeritus board member. Tagliabue had been chair since 2018. Ross, 82, had been the board’s vice chair in recent years.
“I take pride in the work the organization has done to combat racism and discrimination, increase civic engagement through its RISE to Vote initiative and bring together people of all backgrounds throughout the country,” Tagliabue said in a statement. “Sports are the ultimate unifier with the power to help create more just and equitable societies for everyone. This is the ethos of RISE, and the impact Steve envisioned when he founded the organization seven years ago. Now, under the fresh and committed leadership of Troy and Pete, I am confident RISE will continue to grow and unite communities through sports to eliminate racism, discrimination and hate.”
“Over seven years ago, not only did Steve Ross have the courage to state his belief that people of all colors had to be a part of any effective solution to addressing racism in the US, but he also acted on that belief by engaging his peers, founding RISE with them and supporting the organization in word, action and deed,” Diahann Billings-Burford, RISE’s CEO, said in a statement. “As seasoned leaders, he and Paul Tagliabue understand the value of succession planning and intentionally planned for the evolution and growth of the organization. Their stepping down from Board leadership is an acknowledgment of the work RISE still must do and their belief in Troy and Pete to lead us into our next phase.”
In its announcement of the moves, RISE didn’t offer a statement from Ross.
Ross founded RISE in 2015 after Jonathan Martin, a Black offensive lineman for the Dolphins, accused a white teammate of bullying him. An NFL investigation found racial slurs in text and voice messages that the white player, Richie Incognito, had sent Martin. With input from diversity experts, Ross began RISE.
Last spring, Ross told Andscape that he started the organization because America needed to do a better job addressing “the scourge of racism.”
“When we founded it, it was way ahead of its time,” Ross said then in written response to questions from Andscape. “It’s been focused on voting registration, with the RISE to Vote initiative which is across the country…. It’s growing so fast and people want to be part of it and help it grow. I made a commitment for $30 million, and the work is essential.”
RISE works at all levels of sports from youth leagues and high schools to the college and professional ranks. RISE created partnerships and programs it said are designed “to create positive change on matters of race and equality.” In the statement announcing the board changes, RISE said it has engaged in programming in more than 40 states, educating more than 5million people and empowering nearly 500 partners. In addition to stocking its board with leaders from the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, NCAA and NASCAR, RISE has on its board leaders from most major media networks, including Turner, ESPN/ABC, NBC and CBS.
Some critics felt Ross had undercut RISE’s mission of advocating for diversity and championing social justice. Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills, for instance, accused Ross of not being supportive of players who took a knee during the National Anthem to protest police brutality. Ross said he supported the players right to kneel.
In 2019, Ross was criticized for hosting an event at his home that helped to raise around $12 million for President Donald J. Trump’s re-election campaign. Among other things, Trump had issued a ban on racial sensitivity training for federal contractors and RISE supporters weren’t happy that its leader was giving support to the president. RISE acknowledged that after the fundraiser a prominent donor withheld a grant and one of the group’s board members resigned in protest.
Ross hired a Black general manager, Chris Grier, for the Dolphins in 2016 and in 2019 added a Black head coach, Brian Flores. But after Ross fired Flores earlier this year, Flores filed a class-action lawsuit that charges the NFL and several teams with racial discrimination in the head-coaching hiring process. That suit is pending in federal court with two other Black plaintiffs, Steve Wilks, the current interim head coach of the Carolina Panthers, and Ray Horton, a defensive coach for multiple teams.
In the lawsuit, Flores accused Ross of multiple infractions, including tampering with a high-profile player, who turned out to be quarterback Tom Brady, and Sean Payton, then the coach of the New Orleans Saints. A league investigation sustained that charge and Ross was suspended for six weeks and the Dolphins were docked their 2023 first-round draft pick as well as a third-round pick in 2024.
In recent years, RISE began to become less dependent on Ross. In 2020, RISE applied to become a public charity so it could expand its ability to raise funds, and not rely so heavily on Ross, who had given the group the vast majority of its monies. Also, without ever announcing the change, RISE changed its name to just its acronym, no longer identifying itself as the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality.