A Cleveland-area trial lawyer sits in a conference room of a midtown Manhattan skyscraper, prepared to argue for the reputation of a former professional football coach in a hearing the public was never meant to know about.
Joe Stafford had arrived with a cache of evidence he believes shows that the Browns’ front office misled Hue Jackson during the coach’s hiring process, and that the team set out to intentionally lose games over a two-year span, set up Jackson as a dupe, and scapegoated and defamed him in public comments by prominent members of the organization. Stafford plans to lay it all out on this day, Jan. 24, 2020, before an NFL-appointed arbitrator.
What unfolds is hours of frustration for all parties involved. A large portion of the hearing is devoted to whether the details of Jackson’s case will even be heard. The Browns—who are denying all of Jackson’s claims—have a trump card: an agreement, signed by Jackson and dated Nov. 5, 2018, a little more than a week after his firing, that releases the team from all claims in exchange for Jackson collecting the rest of his salary. In September ’19, when Jackson first demanded arbitration, the Browns formally filed a motion to dismiss based on that release agreement. This hearing is Jackson’s only recourse, based on language in his contract—which has become standard across the NFL—mandating football-related disputes with the team be resolved by arbitration. That is why he and Stafford are not in open court but rather here, in the offices of Peter Harvey, the former New Jersey attorney general and the NFL’s hand-picked arbitrator.
Over the course of the day, Stafford frequently interrupts his counterpart, the lead counsel representing the Browns, Richard Millisor. In what seems to be a point of procedural minutiae, Stafford is insisting that 38 pages of exhibits—his evidence—be attached to the hearing’s transcript, making them readily available for the small number of people who might have access to the case in the future. Millisor resists, and Harvey seems to be leaning the team’s way, saying the exhibits are part of the record even if they’re not attached to the transcript.
Stafford isn’t satisfied, and, about four hours into the session, things reach a boiling point. According to the transcript, Millisor says, “So here is the concern, and I think it’s your [Stafford’s] concern, is that while the Club did not move to strike the 38 pages of documents, 95% of that information deals with conduct that would occur before Nov. 5, 2018. Much of which would be extremely damaging to the Club and, frankly, to Coach Jackson if it would be to be made public.”
The NFL’s arbitration system is designed to prevent details–especially “extremely damaging” ones—from becoming public. But Sports Illustrated has reviewed more than 1,000 pages of documents from Jackson’s case, which were part of an application Stafford prepared to file in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court to vacate the league’s arbitration (according to Stafford, Jackson chose not to go forward with it due to financial considerations and the prospect of a trial in Cleveland). The documents include those 38 pages in question, plus transcripts from that January 2020 arbitration hearing and a second one in March 2020. Through those arbitration proceedings, Jackson pursued claims including breach of contract, fraud, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress against the Browns, seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
SI also reviewed internal documents from the Browns, Jackson’s contract (one that multiple veteran agents described to SI as highly unusual), and email exchanges between Goodell, Jackson and others supporting Jackson’s case. In addition, SI interviewed people familiar with Jackson and with knowledge of the inner workings of the Browns—some on the record, some on background—as well as, for context, experts in employment law.
Taken together, the reporting provides an intimate look at a franchise attempting to walk a tightrope between “smart rebuild” and “all-out tank,” while trying to meld classic “football” coaches and scouts with a progressive “analytics” front office. They reveal actions that could be interpreted as violating the league’s principle of competitive integrity: Specifically, an addendum to Jackson’s contract includes bonus incentives that—while they do not specifically call for Jackson to lose games—appear to incentivize losing.
Two weeks ago, SI reported that since February, the NFL had been conducting an independent investigation into the Browns’ actions during the 2016 and ’17 seasons. That inquiry was in response to Jackson’s allusion to a pay-to-lose scheme in a series of tweets in February, in the wake of similar claims by Brian Flores against the Dolphins. While Flores claimed he was offered $100,000 per loss by Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, Jackson days later clarified that he was not explicitly paid per loss. Flores and Jackson are both citing racial discrimination as a motivation for their respective former teams’ actions.
On Monday, the NFL announced that its investigation had cleared the Browns of any wrongdoing. A letter signed by Roger Goodell and sent to Browns owner Jimmy Haslam (with Jackson copied), said that “none of Jackson’s allegations were substantiated,” and that investigators, “found no evidence that the Browns ‘tanked’ any game, or that anyone in ownership, the football department, or coaching staff encouraged losses or discouraged winning to improve the club’s draft position. […] The evidence instead showed a club acting with integrity to develop and implement a long-term plan to build and maintain a successful team and to win every game that it played.”
The NFL’s press release noted, “While Coach Jackson initially agreed to meet with the investigators, he ultimately did not do so.” More specifically, Jackson’s camp had multiple correspondences with the league’s investigator, Mary Jo White of Debevoise & Plimpton, in March. A Zoom interview with investigators was originally scheduled for March 17, but Jackson canceled in order to consult with an attorney first. On March 29, Jackson’s camp laid out conditions for his participation: The full scope of the investigation be presented to Jackson in writing, for which Jackson would sign a confidentiality and nondisclosure agreement; waivers, releases of claims, and indemnity for Jackson, his attorneys and Kimberly Diemert, the head of his foundation; and reimbursement for legal fees and any other costs incurred. White responded via email that the NFL does not release, indemnify or pay the legal fees of witnesses and can not disclose the details of an ongoing investigation to third parties. A letter dated April 12 from Jackson’s lawyer, David Lisko of Holland & Knight, reiterating Jackson’s conditions, did not receive a response. (White declined comment.)
A Browns spokesperson declined to provide on-the-record responses to a list of questions from SI or to make owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam or chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta available for interviews. Millisor also declined an interview request. Following the completion of the NFL’s investigation, a team spokesperson said: “We appreciate the independent investigation led by Mary Jo White and the Debevoise team which brings closure to these allegations that Hue Jackson publicly recanted shortly after they were made and that we’ve known all along are categorically false. As we’ve previously stated, we welcomed this investigation because the integrity of our game is something that should not be taken lightly and an independent review was crucial in bringing a conclusion to this matter.”
Sashi Brown, Cleveland’s executive vice president and general manager from 2016 to ’17 and now team president of the Ravens, through a team spokesperson, declined an interview request or to answer a list of questions provided by SI.
An NFL spokesperson also declined to comment for this story.
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Jackson, citing the release agreement that precludes him from speaking publicly about his grievance, declined to answer SI’s questions but, before the NFL released its findings, provided a statement: “Two years ago I tried to do this the right way, through the bylaws and constitution of the National Football League, to ask them to investigate the Cleveland Browns for all the allegations that I’ve made. So why open an investigation now?”
Jackson’s haphazard claims in the immediate aftermath of the news of Flores’s lawsuit caused many to see him as an unreliable narrator—and, to be certain, his time in Cleveland was far more complicated, his case far more nuanced, than the one his lawyer prepared.
Above all, Jackson’s case is a study of a team that pushed the envelope like no other team when it comes to rebuilding, who pays what price when it goes terribly wrong, and how the league reacts when a head coach takes on his former team.
The most unusual aspect of Jackson’s contract doesn’t actually appear in the contract itself. It is the incentives package that is referenced in the contract but not laid out in detail. The specific incentives that would earn Jackson bonus money appear only in a separate, internal Browns document, titled “The Four Year Plan,” a booklet that also outlined the organization’s overall philosophy and included specific protocols for how the team would operate. (SI reviewed Jackson’s contract in full, but had access only to excerpts from The Four Year Plan.)
Article 3 in Jackson’s contract lays out his compensation: $4.75 million per year, plus those incentives. The last line of Article 3 reads, “In addition to salary, Employee shall be eligible for bonus compensation in accordance with the criteria amounts outlined on Exhibit A.” The exhibit, a table within the contract, contains an asterisk referring to a “FOUR YEAR PLAN BONUS” that would pay Jackson “up to $750,000” per season. An asterisk notes that, “The Four Year Plan and goals will be developed with input from Employee and be subject to final approval of Owner.”
Jackson was introduced publicly as the Browns’ new head coach on Jan. 13, 2016. His contract was finalized the next day, according to the unfiled application to vacate arbitration. His role in creating his bonus structure in The Four Year Plan is in dispute. According to Jackson’s claims in that filing, he wasn’t shown The Four Year Plan until four weeks later, on Feb. 13, at which point there were no details of his incentives included. The filing then says The Four Year Plan wasn’t finalized until six weeks after Jackson’s hiring, “on or about” Feb. 28, and that the bonus table was approved by Jimmy Haslam “on or about” May 23. The letter from Goodell to Haslam closing the league’s investigation, however, says that investigators found that, “Coach Jackson himself reviewed the Plan and suggested changes to the Plan’s incentive compensation metrics, which were accepted.”
However they came to be formulated, Jackson’s draft-pick and salary-cap carryover incentives, if both were reached, would pay him a little more than $100,000 annually in the first two years of his deal. For the coach to earn his draft-capital bonus in the plan’s first year, 2016, the document said that the Browns would have to make at least 11 picks in the NFL’s seven-round draft, with five in the first three rounds. In the ensuing three years, that shifted to 10 picks per year, with four in the first three rounds. The salary cap clauses called for the Browns to “rank in the bottom quarter of cash spend” in the plan’s first year and “carry over at least 15% of league cap” into the following year, referring to the fact that teams can carry unused cap space from one season to the following year. In the following years, the salary cap incentives shifted: In the second year, the carryover number went to 12.5% (it disappeared in years three and four). In years two through four, Jackson could also hit bonuses if the Browns ranked higher in team winning percentage than total salary spent. In the back two years, he could achieve bonuses if the Browns ranked in the bottom quarter of the league in dead money.
While draft capital accrued and percentage of cap carried over are appropriate goals for a personnel department, it is unusual to reward the coach for those categories—not only are they out of his control, but those goals stand in opposition to every NFL coach’s baseline goal, which is to win as many games as possible. Very simply, the more a team loses, the higher its picks, and therefore the more draft capital it can accrue. And the less money is spent on the roster, the fewer good players there are.
Typically, the NFL reviews all coach and player contracts; Jackson’s agreement itself (with the signatures of Jackson and Brown) was submitted to the league for approval, but it’s unclear whether the NFL ever reviewed the incentive-package details that appear only in The Four Year Plan. While there is no language specific to coach contracts, Section 9.1(C)(8) of the NFL Constitution and Bylaws states that “no player shall receive any bonus of any kind unless such bonus provision is attached to and/or incorporated in the contract of such player.”
Jackson argues that the arrangement was in violation of Section 9.1(C)(12), which prohibits any team personnel from attempting “to illegally influence the outcome of the [team] or fail to suspend immediately any officer or player or other employee of the [team] who shall be proven guilty of offering, agreeing, conspiring, or attempting to influence the outcome of any game[…]”
Ostensibly, the bonus system was built in order to encourage collaboration between the coaching staff and personnel department, as Jimmy Haslam sought to meld traditional scouting with an analytics-heavy approach (a column, presumably designated for the head of personnel, had the same goals as the “coach” column, though some of the percentages differed). It didn’t work; Jackson, according to his unfiled application to vacate arbitration, first alerted the NFL to his concerns with the Browns’ four-year plan in November 2016, about halfway through his first season in Cleveland.
Multiple people outside the Browns organization who reviewed the table believe it could be seen as innovative. But it is, objectively, not in the best interest of the coach from a win-loss standpoint.
“If I got that sent to me, the first thing I’d think was ‘Holy s—, this is, like, a tank bonus,’” one veteran coaching agent says.
The NFL did not respond to questions as to why it found Jackson’s draft-capital and salary-cap bonus incentives acceptable, nor whether it would approve of other teams offering similar inducements. Jackson’s agent, John Thornton, declined comment for this story. It is unclear how much consideration Jackson gave to the table as he prepared for his first season in Cleveland, or whether he realized what the consequences would be. A source close to Jackson says the coach believes that, rather than promote collaboration, the incentive package was meant to implicate him in organization-wide wrongdoing, though no proof of this has emerged.
In October 2019, Jackson filed his claims in the league’s forced arbitration system, which led to two hearings in ’20 (on Jan. 24 and March 13). In a letter dated May 20, 2020, Harvey ruled that, because of Jackson’s release agreement, the evidence that pointed toward tanking would all be barred from Jackson’s arbitration case.
In the months after Harvey’s ruling, Jackson sent multiple letters to Goodell asking him to open an investigation into the Browns for tanking, the first of which, dated in June and replete with words in bold font and all caps, opened with the line, “I HAVE HAD ENOUGH!”
Later that month, Jackson and his wife, Michelle, met via videoconference with Goodell, executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, and executive vice president and chief people officer Dasha Smith to make his case; no investigation was opened. In August, after two more letters and a threat of litigation to dismiss arbitration, Goodell responded to Jackson via email, which read, in part: “I don’t have any advice on your decision regarding potential litigation. That is your decision with your legal advisors. Peter Harvey is very experienced and capable. […] In our meeting in June, in response to a question Troy asked you about what you need to do to move forward, you replied; ‘I must let it go. Get it behind me.’ I hope you find the best path forward to accomplish that.”
This is how Jackson’s arrangement with the Browns played out in practice.
Theoretically, Haslam’s plan was to combine Jackson’s football knowledge with DePodesta’s analytics-based roster-building acumen and Sashi Brown’s legal expertise. The arrangement was unusual for a number of reasons. DePodesta, for instance, had two decades of experience in Major League Baseball but none in the NFL when he was hired as the Browns’ chief strategy officer. Soon after DePodesta’s hiring, Brown, the team’s executive vice president the previous three seasons, was made the de facto general manager, replacing recently fired GM Ray Farmer. While Farmer had a football-centric background—he played three years at linebacker for the Eagles and later became a scout before moving up the ranks—Brown’s background was as an attorney, and his only previous NFL stop before Cleveland was as the Jaguars’ in-house counsel. The Haslams, DePodesta and Brown oversaw the head-coach hiring process, landing on Jackson. Two weeks later, Cleveland poached Andrew Berry, the Colts’ 28-year-old pro scouting director, to serve as their VP of player personnel, further bolstering the “football” side of the equation.
Jackson, according to his unfiled application to vacate that arbitration—and evident in his actions that season—was never on board with the organization’s long-term vision, and roster control became an immediate and constant source of friction. While the letter from Goodell to Haslam closing the investigation stated that the team “signed a significant number of unrestricted free agents and gave substantial contract extensions to existing players during that period [2016–17],” Cleveland ranked 32nd in total salary cap spend in ’16 and 31st in ’17.
Three veteran departures stood out. During the ’16 offseason, the Browns chose not to re-sign right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, believing Schwartz’s asking price was too high and that the compensatory pick in the following year’s draft would be more valuable than what they considered overpaying for the lineman. (Schwartz signed with the Chiefs and was considered one of the league’s premier offensive tackles over five seasons in Kansas City.) That same offseason, Pro Bowl center Alex Mack left Cleveland to sign with the Falcons.
The team spent more aggressively in the 2017 offseason, signing guard Kevin Zeitler, center JC Tretter and wide receiver Kenny Britt to multi-year deals, and re-signing Jamie Collins to a multi-year extension. But they also parted ways with two defensive team captains. Demario Davis was traded to the Jets for safety Calvin Pryor, who was released after a fight with a teammate before ever playing a regular-season game for Cleveland. Davis left the Jets as a free agent after one season and has been one of the NFL’s elite linebackers over the past four seasons. Also in the ’17 offseason, after failing to find a trade partner, Cleveland released cornerback Joe Haden, who was signed by the rival Steelers and started the past five seasons in Pittsburgh, earning a Pro Bowl nod in 2019.
Among the most aggressive moves Cleveland made over those first two offseasons was, in 2017, acquiring Brock Osweiler along with draft capital in an unprecedented deal that used its abundant cap space to absorb Osweiler’s contract from the Texans. (Osweiler was cut before the ’17 season, though the long-term approach paid off: One of the draft picks acquired became star running back Nick Chubb.)
The quarterback situation remained unsettled. Jackson had interviewed for the 49ers head-coaching job as well in 2016 (San Francisco hired Chip Kelly). According to one person close to the coach, Jackson was intrigued by the prospect of working with Colin Kaepernick, whom the 49ers put on the trade block that February (Kaepernick did not begin his public protest against police brutality until months later). Jackson wanted him in Cleveland, but the Browns never made a serious play for the QB. At Jackson’s behest, the team signed Robert Griffin III in March.
In the 2016 draft, the Browns traded out of the No. 2 spot, passing on Carson Wentz, then using a third-round pick on USC quarterback Cody Kessler even though, according to three people who were working on the team’s football side at the time, the coaching and scouting departments agreed that he didn’t warrant more than a late-round pick. At the draft class’s introductory press conference, Jackson told the media, “You have to trust me on this one”—a comment that, according to one assistant coach on that staff, was understood to be a “team player” move by the coach. Griffin entered the year as the starter but suffered a shoulder injury in the season opener, limiting him to five games. Kessler struggled over eight starts, was released after the ’17 season, and after brief stops in Jacksonville and New England, was out of the league by ’20.
Of the 2016 and ’17 teams, one veteran league exec says, “Those were the worst rosters I’ve ever seen in this league. If you set out to intentionally lose games, it would look like that.”
One member of the coaching staff remembers meeting with Jackson shortly after the 53-man roster was finalized at the end of the 2017 preseason and wondering aloud: How are we supposed to win games with this team? He remembers Jackson replying: We’ll try our best.
The line between “rebuilding” and “tanking” has been erased in other major sports leagues, such as the NBA and Major League Baseball. For many, it doesn’t matter if an NFL team decides to throw a season (or two) away in the name of future assets.
But there are deeper issues with the approach, starting with how it affects competitive integrity. More than any major sports leagues, the NFL has long promoted its “Any Given Sunday” mantra. The chance of a worst-to-first turnaround—each of the last three and four of the last five Super Bowls featured a team that had a losing record the previous season—holds tremendous appeal for downtrodden fan bases. And the prospect of a coach being incentivized to lose games raises even more issues now, as the league partners with sportsbooks and legalized gambling becomes more prevalent.
For those who work at the highest levels of professional football, the problem with tanking begins with the fact that the price is paid almost entirely by the coaches and players, for whom the decision to tank is out of their control. Among the anti-labor issues, player safety is a problem when a team is rife with players who don’t perform at the NFL level. There are also potential issues for players who have incentives in their contracts—not only can it be more difficult to reach certain statistical benchmarks as part of a bad team, but a franchise with little interest in winning games could look to save money by making sure player bonuses are not reached (there is no indication this was the case with the Browns).
More than anything, in the ultimate team sport, every player gets dragged down by a lack of surrounding talent. In a league where the average career span is less than four years, one season of bad tape on a bad team can be a ticket out of the league.
One player under Jackson in Cleveland says he’s been in touch with around a dozen former teammates since Jackson made his public statements about being incentivized to lose. Believing the Browns’ struggles damaged their individual careers and earning power, they’ve discussed potential legal recourse.
There’s the impact on the coaching staff as well. Ken Delgado, a longtime college assistant, got a chance to break into the NFL with the 2016 Browns. As an assistant defensive line coach, he helped oversee not only Myles Garrett’s early development but also worked with Larry Ogunjobi, a third-round pick who became one of the league’s better 3-technique defensive tackles, and Trevon Coley, a practice-squad addition who started 29 games in Cleveland. Delgado was out after the ’18 season. He’s currently on Jackson’s staff at Grambling.
“Every coach wants to make it to the NFL, and that was my chance,” Delgado says. “I’m realistic; I’m not going to get back into the league.”
But more than anyone, the head coach wears the win-loss record. For Jackson, the losing became overwhelming. “I saw what it did to the man,” Delgado says.
Several times during the 2016 season, without warning or explanation, Jackson handed play-calling duties off to Pep Hamilton, assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach, according to two people familiar with the events. That included at halftime of the season finale in Pittsburgh. The Browns led the Steelers, who were locked into their playoff spot and resting starters, 14–7 at halftime. After squandering that lead, Cleveland drove for a late touchdown to force overtime. After the Browns drove for a field goal to open the extra session, the defense allowed a 75-yard touchdown drive to Steelers backup quarterback Landry Jones. Had the Browns won, the 49ers—not Cleveland—would have owned the first pick of the ’17 draft. Nobody knows, outside of Jackson, at least, why the coach chose to hand off play-calling duties in those instances, though theories abound among people who were part of that team.
Jackson made no secret about his unhappiness with the personnel department. He felt so strongly about the front office’s roster decisions that, multiple times, he took the unheard-of step of asking players to take issues into their own hands and demand a better roster from management, according to one member of the organization at the time. According to the unfiled application to vacate that arbitration, after bringing up his concerns with the organization’s approach to Haslam, Jackson began alerting the league in November 2016.
According to internal Browns organizational documents, Jackson had virtually no role in making personnel decisions. But multiple people interviewed for this piece depict Jackson as a coach with finesse who, despite all the friction within the organization, was able to win some major personnel disagreements. With the roster in shambles and the team reeling after a 1–15 season, Jackson scored a major victory heading into the ’17 draft. He lobbied hard for Garrett against the personnel department’s desire to take a quarterback, specifically Mitchell Trubisky, with the No. 1 pick—and won over Haslam to secure the pick. (Cleveland selected a quarterback, DeShone Kizer, in Round 2; Kizer struggled as the Week 1 starter and was traded the following offseason.)
Garrett was a star, but things got worse for the Browns the following season. Yet, according to Jackson’s application to vacate arbitration, the Browns gave Jackson a vote of confidence, one that would stay in-house. In a curious bit of timing, on Oct. 30, 2017—one day after the team had fallen to 0–8 and Jackson’s record in Cleveland stood at 1–23—the team quietly exercised an option year in Jackson’s contract, worth $5.25 million.
A little more than five weeks later, on Dec. 7, Cleveland fired Sashi Brown and replaced him with former Chiefs GM John Dorsey, whose scouting background more closely aligned with Jackson. After that season, Todd Haley, a former Chiefs head coach and more recently Steelers offensive coordinator, was brought in as offensive coordinator as Jackson moved to more of a “CEO” role for the coaching staff, but the arrangement failed. Jackson and Haley frequently butted heads, furthering the dysfunction.
There was an organization-wide decision to bring Baker Mayfield, the No. 1 pick of the 2018 draft, along slowly behind veteran Tyrod Taylor. Cleveland opened the season with a tie against the favored Steelers in monsoon-like conditions, lost on a last-second field goal as heavy underdogs in New Orleans, and snapped a 19-game winless streak when Mayfield, coming off the bench for an injured Taylor, led them to a Thursday night victory over the Jets. However, they dropped four of their next five games, at which point Jackson (as well as Haley, who believed he would become the interim head coach) was fired.
At the end of every season, the NFL asks each team’s owner, team president, general manager and head coach to sign an “Integrity of the Game Certification.” Jackson refused to sign.
Jackson finished his stint in Cleveland, his second as a head coach, with a 3-36-1 record. He returned to the Bengals, where he had been offensive coordinator before taking the Browns job, as a special assistant to head coach Marvin Lewis. As Cleveland rallied with a 5–3 finish under interim head coach Gregg Williams and interim offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens, Jackson became a punching bag. That criticism was a point of emphasis in his complaint against the Browns—and it’s one Harvey considered because the events occurred after the date of Jackson’s release agreement.
In his complaint, Jackson specifically goes after Haslam for a comment made immediately after his firing and featured in a video on the Browns’ website, in which the owner said the issue leading to Jackson’s firing was “internal discord.” Jackson asked Haslam to correct that statement and publicly reference the formalized Four-Year Plan that played a part in the disastrous 2016 and ’17 win-loss records; Haslam declined, saying it was better to let the news cycle run its course.
Jackson’s complaint also highlights a barrage of criticism from Mayfield. After a victory over the Bengals, who then employed Jackson, Mayfield had an icy postgame exchange with his former coach, which he said was because Jackson joined a division rival. He referred to Jackson as “fake” in an Instagram comment.
In January 2019, Mayfield appeared alongside Cooper Manning in a Fox pregame segment featuring Manning brothers–caliber comedy bits. “Baking With Baker and Cooper” included a nod to Kitchens, recently promoted to head coach (Manning: “If you’re not a fan of Kitchens, that’s O.K.”; Baker: “No, I love Kitchens”) followed by a dig at Jackson (Baker: “Anything’s better Hue—er, you”).
According to emails attached to one of Jackson’s arbitration motions, prompted by the coach, John Wooten, former chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, emailed Goodell about reining in Mayfield, sending an aggregated article about the skit. Goodell, in his response, pledged to “take the steam out of this.” It is unclear whether any action was taken.
Jackson also cited a montage featured in the in-house production Building the Browns that looked toward the 2019 season. It started with the firing of Jackson and Haley, followed by highlights from the second half of the ’18 season. In his complaint, Jackson argued that the scenes, “are dedicated to false, misleading and inaccurate comments and representations of Coach Jackson and his time with the Cleveland Browns.”
Harvey ruled against Jackson on this matter, determining that Mayfield’s comments were non-actionable opinions (of the Fox pregame segment: “It was a bad attempt at humor. … The statement is not, however, a factual statement”) and that, regardless, Mayfield did not make them “within the scope of his employment.” Harvey also determined that the Building the Browns segment did not rise to the standard of actual malice, and that Jackson failed to establish falsity.
Harvey also recognized the economic advantage the Browns held over Jackson but deemed the release agreement valid. The exhibits that pre-dated Jackson’s release—the crux of Jackson’s tanking allegations, and presumably at the center of the NFL’s current investigation—were barred. Jackson’s arbitration case was fully dismissed.
The Browns’ two-and-a-half-year run was one of the most disastrous in NFL history, and Jackson has taken more of the blame for it than anyone. That’s clear when looking at the epilogue for each member of team leadership during that time.
Jimmy and Dee Haslam still own the team, of course, and Paul DePodesta remains chief strategy officer. Approximately 20 months after being fired, Sashi Brown joined the NBA’s Washington Wizards as chief planning and operations officer; on April 1, he returned to the NFL, taking over as the Ravens’ new team president. Andrew Berry, the VP of player personnel under Brown, took the VP of football operations job with the Eagles after the 2018 season. He returned to the Browns as general manager in January 2020, replacing Dorsey.
As for Jackson, he spent the remainder of the 2018 season with the Bengals, but that job disappeared when Lewis was fired at the end of the year. The league office attempted to help him, tabbing him to run an NFL-sponsored workout for Kaepernick in November ’19, but even that backfired. Kaepernick’s camp changed the time and location the day of the workout, against the league’s wishes, and Jackson drew criticism for not participating in the rescheduled session.
Jackson spent two years out of work—according to a source close to him, broadcasters also told Jackson he was viewed as damaged goods—and hasn’t coached above the FCS college level since. He got back into coaching last season, hired as the offensive coordinator for Eddie George, the Titans legend, at Tennessee State. Last December, Jackson accepted the head coaching job at Grambling.
When asked about Jackson’s seeming lack of understanding when it came to his own contract, one coaching agent who doesn’t represent Jackson said that their clients run the gamut when it comes to asking about the details of their own deal. While an agent’s job is to explain contract details directly, the agent said the more a coach feels a job is his last or only opportunity, the less likely he is to inquire about what’s in the contract. A second coaching agent said that most coaches are excited to get the deal done, though some agents prep coaches on basic expectations, such as average salary, before the carousel starts. The second agent said that coaches who have no other opportunities are likely to sign anything that’s put in front of him. Additionally, as one veteran industry source says, each disagreement during the negotiation of a contract puts a coach closer to feeling like they are being knocked out of contention for a job that rarely becomes available; some are so desperate to become a head coach that they would sign almost anything.
Jackson has made the case publicly, as well as in his arbitration complaint, that race was a factor in how his time in Cleveland played out. While it’s true that the 2016 Browns had Black men (Brown and Berry) in positions of power, the dearth of Black head coaches across the NFL has been well documented. Jackson is Black, and at the time he was interviewing for jobs in 2016 he was a 50-year-old retread candidate. While well regarded, Jackson had little bargaining power—especially after the 49ers chose to go with Chip Kelly—even if he showed more interest in the details of his contract. It was potentially his last chance to be an NFL head coach.
Given the relatively small number of Black coaches who have been given a shot to run an NFL team, it is noteworthy that the two franchises that tore down their rosters more aggressively than any others in NFL history both tabbed Black head coaches to manage the aftermath. The Browns’ struggle to rebuild didn’t deter Dolphins owner Stephen Ross from razing his team’s roster in a chase for future assets, before the 2019 season. The Dolphins then hired Brian Flores as head coach that offseason. Neither Jackson nor Flores made it to a fourth season.
The language requiring a release to collect remaining salary that appeared in Jackson’s contract is common across the NFL. Flores declined to sign a release upon being fired, to this point forgoing his remaining salary. Steve Wilks, who along with Ray Horton joined Flores’s racial discrimination lawsuit against the NFL earlier this month, did not have such mandatory release language in his contract with the Cardinals. (Horton, whose participation in the lawsuit is based on his time as the Titans’ defensive coordinator, did not have to sign a release as he left voluntarily.)
Including Jackson, four Black coaches, three of them former head coaches, are publicly accusing the league of racial discrimination. Flores, in his complaint, has pointed to a lack of transparency in the hiring and firing processes as core to the issue. He also points directly at the forced arbitration system for enabling discrimination.
“With forced arbitration, there won’t be a jury of my peers who will hear my claims, which is one of the most important and fundamental rights we have in this country,” Flores said in March, speaking to the American Association for Justice, a lobbying group for trial lawyers. In Jackson’s case, Stafford points out that the arbitration process was so secretive, and the discovery process so restricted, that he was prohibited from seeking out witnesses.
Flores was speaking to the AAJ in support of the FAIR Act, which passed the U.S. House in March and would put a more expansive ban on mandatory workplace arbitration. Joe Biden had already signed the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act into law on March 3.
It’s not unprecedented for a large corporation with tremendous cultural sway to voluntarily make the move away from forced arbitration; most prominently Google did that in 2019. Flores’s legal team believes forced arbitration should be waived in cases of racial discrimination and has asked for the league to do so in the cases of Flores, Wilks and Horton (as of now, the NFL has not). In a list of questions submitted to an NFL spokesperson for this story, SI asked whether the NFL would consider prohibiting or restricting forced arbitration language in contracts going forward. No response was provided.
Jackson’s case covers a controversy-filled coaching tenure that spanned 1,020 days, and a subsequent legal battle that has gone on for more than three years. The NFL has yet to publicly address exactly how far a team can go in bottoming out and rebuilding—and what exactly a coach can be incentivized to do. On Monday evening, the league released its only public statement on the matter. It was 206 words long.
Read more of SI’s Daily Cover stories here:
• How the Eagles Built Flexibility and Cashed in on Draft Night
• Aidan Hutchinson’s Rise to Top Prospect
• Kayvon Thibodeaux Hears His Critics and Has a Plan
• Behind the Spectacle of Kaepernick’s Comeback Tour