Stephen Ross targets sports bullying, prejudice

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
Stephen Ross

Notorious Ndamukong Suh's new boss, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, is preparing to launch a nonprofit to battle bullying and prejudice in sports.

The New York-based Ross Institute for Sports Equality would work with the major sports leagues to develop educational programs to address the kind of bullying scandal that hit Ross' Dolphins, courtesy of guard Richie Incognito.

Ross told The Detroit News that the idea effectively was born in Detroit, where the team owner and major University of Michigan benefactor was completing a tour of the city when the scandal erupted into public view and threatened to permanently tarnish the Dolphins, the team's reputation and his ownership.

Ross quickly came to realize the risk and the opportunity: "That when everybody talks about bullying and racism in sports, they're gonna talk about the Miami Dolphins. It gave me the opportunity, I believe, to do something as opposed to put my head in the sand."

In November 2013, Incognito's bullying became the top story across the NFL. Now 31, Incognito sent racially charged text and voice messages to fellow Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin, who was his junior by seven professional seasons. Martin left the Dolphins, citing emotional distress, on Oct. 30, 2013, and didn't play again for the team that drafted him in the second round in 2012.

Adding to the black mark on the team, reports surfaced that Incognito had been harassing Martin under orders from Dolphins coaches. Miami suspended Incognito for conduct detrimental to the team in light of the incidents and later released him; he sat out the entire 2014 season before the Buffalo Bills signed him in February.

A driving tour of Ross' hometown offered a stark parallel. Detroit's decline "was a result of racism," he said, "and this was a result of racism — the Incognito issue. Sports is a "common denominator" that can be used to "effectuate change," to address "prejudices and how people look at things."

He envisions the nonprofit developing public education efforts "starting when kids first start playing ball." Among the messages: "knowing that if you're an athlete and a ballplayer you're a role model all the way through."

Ross is scheduled to meet next month with officials of the major sports leagues, and his nonprofit dubbed RISE also is likely to name its executive director.

"We've got a lot of meat on the bones," he said. "We just haven't gone public with it. I've got all the basics in place."

dhowes@detroitnews.com