The writer is a Los Angeles freelancer and former Detroit News business reporter. This column first appeared on his blog, Starkman Approved, and is being republished with permission.
By Eric Starkman
Living in New York City for nearly three decades and working with many people on Wall Street I understandably met a lot of dislikable people. The majority worked in private equity but the most deplorable person I ever encountered worked in real estate. His name was Stephen M. Ross, and he was, and still is, chairman of The Related Companies.
I met Ross in the mid-1990s when Ross hadn’t yet developed the NYC landmark properties that vaulted him into the major leagues. I was working at the PR firm he retained to raise his profile and was asked to help at a media cocktail reception it arranged so Ross could schmooze with reporters. As I didn’t work on the Related account Ross had never met me, so he mistook me for a reporter when he was working the room.
“Hi, I’m Stephen Ross,” he cheerily said, extending his hand. “Who do you work for?”
“I work for (the PR firm),” I replied, extending my hand.
“Why would I want to waste my time talking to you?” Ross replied with a scowl while hastily withdrawing his hand.
Those who know Ross or have had dealings with the billionaire won’t be surprised by the story. He is not a nice person, even by Wall Street standards. I asked a friend who’s had business interactions with Ross for their assessment of him and the response was so vulgar I can’t print it. Although three decades have passed since my encounter with Ross, it’s clear the octogenarian hasn’t changed over the years. The National Football League confirmed this last week when it notified the Miami Dolphins that it was imposing various disciplinary measures, including stripping the team of its 2023 first-round pick, for violations of league policies relating to the integrity of the game. Ross owns the Miami Dolphins, and the most egregious violations were conducted with his knowledge and tacit approval.
The NFL fined Ross $1.5 million and suspended him through October 17, prohibiting him from entering the Dolphins’ facility or representing the team at any event. Ross also is banned from league meetings until the annual assembly next year.
“The investigators found tampering violations of unprecedented scope and severity,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “I know of no prior instance of a team violating the prohibition on tampering with both a head coach and star player, to the potential detriment of multiple other clubs, over a period of several years. Similarly, I know of no prior instance in which ownership was so directly involved in the violations.”
Ross the jokester
The NFL gave Ross a pass on a damning allegation by former Dolphins coach Brian Flores that Ross encouraged him to tank, or deliberately lose games, so the team would qualify for preferential draft pick positions. The NFL essentially ruled that Ross was joking when he offered to pay Flores $100,000 for every game he lost. I’d welcome a compilation of other “jokes” Ross shared with Flores.
Flores, who is Black, is suing the NFL, alleging racism in the league’s hiring practices. In Ross’ case, I imagine a lawyer could easily convince a jury the billionaire is an equal opportunity SOB.
Tellingly, Ross has expressed no remorse for the NFL findings against him.
“With regards to tampering, I strongly disagree with the conclusions and the punishment,” Ross said in a statement. “The independent investigation cleared our organization on any issues relating to tanking and all of Brian Flores’ other allegations. As I have said all along, these past allegations were false, malicious, and defamatory, and this issue is now put to rest.”
Not in my mind. My perception is that Flores is a better man than Ross, and that while he was bothered and hurt by offers to throw games, he ignored them and continued to fight the good fight. The NFL can argue that Ross was only joking offering Flores $100,000 for every game he tanked, but I’m confident Coach Flores never once was amused.
The Michigan connection
As seems always to be the case, there’s a Michigan angle to this national story. Ross hails from Detroit, and he’s one of the University of Michigan’s biggest donors. He’s given so much money they named the business school after him.
One might expect a university whose medical school even incorporates “critical race theory, health justice, and intersectionality framework” into its doctoring curriculum might be a tad embarrassed being associated with Ross given the allegations and findings against him, particularly in light of the importance it places on football.
Michigan is one of 40 states where a college football coach is the highest-paid individual on the public payroll. The “nonprofit” university will pay Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh $7.05 million this year and his compensation will rise steadily to $7.63 million in 2026.
When it was revealed three years ago that Ross held a fundraiser for Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, there was an alumni movement afoot to remove Ross’ name from all campus buildings. Business school alum Kumar Rao went so far as to start an open alumni letter calling on the university to remove the Ross name from all its buildings. If Rao and the more than 600 alumni who signed his letter are bothered by the NFL’s allegations against Ross, they seem too tongue-tied to publicly express their concern. I can find no evidence of even a peep of protest from them.
Rao directs “justice policy and campaign work” at the Center for Popular Democracy, including “supporting partner grassroots organizations and elected officials in the fight for racial equity and criminal justice transformation at the local, state, and federal levels.” Given Rao’s silence, I’m guessing he doesn’t have much interest in what’s going on at the NFL, where nearly 70 percent of the players at risk getting their brains scrambled are persons of color.
Michigan democracy dies near midnight
I suspect most Michigan taxpayers aren’t aware of this, but their political leaders in secret last month earmarked $100 million, or $10 per taxpayer, to fund Ross’ pet project called the Detroit Center for Innovation, a collaboration among Related Companies, the University of Michigan, and a controversial real estate development company controlled by the Ilitch family, proud owners of Little Caesar’s Pizza.
From a July 14, 2022, story in Crain’s Detroit Business:
Billionaire Stephen Ross traveled to Lansing in February to personally lobby key state lawmakers for funding to build the Detroit Center for Innovation, a collaboration among his real estate firm, the Ilitch family’s Olympia Development of Michigan and the University of Michigan.
Months later, legislators included $100 million for the project — 40 percent of its estimated cost — in $79 billion in spending now headed to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for her signature.
The outlay was among an unprecedented $1 billion in earmarks, bipartisan spending around which there was no public scrutiny because the legislation was released late at night by conference committees and approved by the Legislature within hours.
Crain’s learned that Ross — chairman of New York City-based developer Related Cos., the Miami Dolphins owner and a major donor to the University of Michigan — made his pitch directly to the four legislative leaders along with top members of the House and Senate budget committees. He visited on Feb. 9, the same day the Democratic governor unveiled her budget proposal.
The $100 million earmark — which amounts to roughly $10 for every person in the state — is tied for the second-largest earmark in the budget, trailing only $130 million for an electric vehicle center at the University of Michigan. It was a surprise because there had been no indication that Ross, Christopher Ilitch, the CEO of Ilitch Holdings Inc., or the university would seek public funding outside of potential tax incentives.
In yet another example of how politics is conducted in Michigan, the Detroit News reported last month that two days before the Michigan legislature earmarked $100 million for Ross’ pet project, Ryan Friedrichs, the husband of Michigan’s Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, registered as a state lobbyist working on behalf of Related Companies.
Working for Ross seems to be a family affair. Before becoming secretary of state, Benson was CEO of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, a nonprofit founded by Ross whose mission is — ready for this? – “educates and empowers the sports community to eliminate racial discrimination, champion social justice, and improve race relations.”
As for Friedrichs, he strikes me as a real fine fellow. According to the News, Friedrichs in 2019 was one of three senior staffers disciplined following a probe by Detroit’s Office of Inspector General that found mayor Mike Duggan “unilaterally” directed city resources toward assisting the nonprofit Make Your Date, which was led by a woman to whom Duggan is now married.
It is said that people are products of the environments they grew up in. Stephen M. Ross is Pure Michigan!