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THIS MAN FIRED FLIPPER
Mark Kram
December 15, 1969
He is Joe Robbie, a Lebanese lawyer out of South Dakota and the owner of the Miami Dolphins, who likes to play touch football with his kids but can't figure out why he isn't loved. Of course, he thought the world's most adorable mascot was an extravagance
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December 15, 1969

This Man Fired Flipper

He is Joe Robbie, a Lebanese lawyer out of South Dakota and the owner of the Miami Dolphins, who likes to play touch football with his kids but can't figure out why he isn't loved. Of course, he thought the world's most adorable mascot was an extravagance

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"I'll say this. I've had people in politics dislike me thoroughly, but nobody ever questioned my integrity. Nobody's ever suggested that I don't pay my bills. But...I find it amazing down here. The owner of a sports enterprise is not ordinarily so public a figure. Once people sympathized with the guy who could climb up the ladder, the Horatio Alger thing, you know. But I think this affluent society where lots of people have lots of money, they resent a working still" making it. That kind of thinking exists particularly in the glamorous area of professional sports, which always has been a rich man's plaything in the past. They're big business now, and there's going to be more and more of my kind one day. Nobody, I'll say this, will run me out of this town. I know how to light. I come from a town called Hard Times."

Joe Robbie, 53, was born and raised in Sisseton, S. Dak. (pop. 3,218), where two of his father's great uncles (Lebanese peddlers passing through the town) decided to live. Joe's father was born in a town about 50 miles from Beirut. He left Lebanon in 1900 at the age of 11, mainly because his mother wanted him to escape military conscription by the ruling Turks. She tied a money belt around his waist, put him on the boat and gave him letters to Lebanese in Marseilles and Liverpool. When he reached the United States, his money belt was nearly empty. A tin-ear immigration official stared at him coldly and asked him his name. "Arabi," he said. "It sounds like Robbie," the official said to his partner. "That's good enough. Make it Robbie."

Joe himself has always been at ease with the language. It is apparent to all within range that he is an indefatigable talker. At Northern State College and the University of South Dakota, where he spent a total of seven years and only $300, he became a debating champion. "I loved to talk," he says. "I learned that it could be a weapon, too. But it was really enjoyment for me. Debating and the sports pages were my only distractions." College was just plain work—slinging hash, sweeping, anything to make a dollar. After college, and now a lawyer, he entered politics, a Democrat in a Republican state. Later, he won his party's nomination for governor but lost in the general election. As a politician he says, "I was always interested in people's personal problems."

At the moment Robbie has his own personal problem in the Dolphins. The team, despite its dismal record, is his only passion, other than occasional deep sea fishing trips, during which he works his own and everybody else's line. Looking up at the fish on his office walls, he says: "One thing I'd never do is mount another man's fish." More frequently, he takes his ease on the Dolphin sideline. There, with his children running behind him, he sprints up and down the yard stripes, pounding players on the back, selling as if he were in the charge at Manassas and banishing people from the area who have suddenly incurred his disfavor.

At work he keeps an eye on the banks, writes memos and spends a good deal of time trying to whip up public sympathy for the Dolphins. His pitch is built on three points: Miami is an expansion team; he says he has spent more money on top draft choices than any other team in football; he has been victimized by the press, a fashionable gambit these days. When the applause does not swell, Robbie is petulant. "Win me?" he says. "What did I do to this town but try to give them a football team?" He cannot understand the sniping, why he ignites violent emotion in others, but the clamor and pointed fingers have not eroded his spirit. "I have an affinity for futility," he says. "It is a Don Quixote complex."

Yet, for all his exposure he is not personally indelible. Except for his bent nose, furtive eyes and the hint that he is always coiled and ready to pounce, he is eminently forgettable. Because of his guile and gall in deals, the anatomy of which no one is certain, he will leave his mark on Miami. But he is, it seems, a failure in a sense, that is if you appreciate art, whether it is in a jewel heist or in the gray rooms of finance. On the inside Joe Robbie was said to be delicate, cool and brilliant. Now, whether out of desperation, confusion, or maybe because of a lack of style under pressure, he somehow seems to have become—to those who watch him closely—just another prairie pirate with the touch of a blacksmith.

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