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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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Joe Robbie is an owner in pro football, which means he should have a III or a IV after his name and emit a fragrance of old, old money or, considering the decline of everything these days, some new, new money with the smudge of heavy industry or the stain of oil on it. For the privileges of a franchise, primarily the one of making more money, the owner is expected to avoid publicity and sign the checks promptly. He can, though, sit on the bench in his well-tailored suit, practice expressions of emotion, and one day even make a banal contribution to a title celebration on television. But none of this is Joe Robbie, which is one of the reasons why not many can understand how Joe Robbie became and remains an owner in pro football.

To those who appraise style with a jeweler's eye, Joe just isn't right, especially not for Miami, the capital of the smooth facade He looks like the business agent for a labor union, wears electric-green anklets, and his grip on a cocktail glass is that of a longshoreman holding a schooner of beer. Is this image the real one? Is there a darker side—or a lighter one? In any event, how can an unheeled prairie lawyer control the Miami Dolphins? Nobody really knows, except the people he used and Joe Robbie himself. But indisputably, he is a preeminent figure among the many odd, secret harvesters of wealth in Miami and easily one of the most provocative names in all of football.

"Everybody knows Joe Robbie," says Raleigh Tozer. "You walk down Biscayne Boulevard in front of the Everglades Hotel and eight out of 10 people will say, if asked, ' Joe Robbie? Why, he's that son of a something on the 11th floor of that building.' "

"You hate him?"

"No, I don't hate him," says Tozer, who after starting the Dolphin radio network was eliminated by Robbie. "If I hated him, I could have had him killed. I declined. I'll take care of him myself. Without a gun. He'll break one day. Every time I see him, I say, 'Hello, Joe, you son of a something, how are you?' "

Insinuation of blood line aside, the comic truth or trouble is that everyone knows or thinks he knows Joe Robbie. He is, the pitch goes, odd, secret and reprehensible. He is odd, to some, because he doesn't have a middle initial, hardly ever signs checks promptly, if at all, and not being a wasteful man, would never allow himself to be drenched with champagne; he would, it is felt, drink it and then sell the bottles as souvenirs. Joe Robbie is already celebrated as the man who fired Flipper, the movie star dolphin who used to cavort in a tank in the end zone. Robbie got rid of Flipper because the city of Miami and the Seaquarium refused to pay for tank repairs and the cost of transporting the animal to and from the Orange Bowl. Robbie is secret because he is Lebanese, a fact that conjures up intrigue to a citizenry that is conditioned to a Meyer Lansky and the town's nest of international safe crackers. He's reprehensible because...well, he's just reprehensible.

Joe Robbie, it is clear, doesn't light up any rooms with his presence, but he is a singular entity as an owner. In many ways he is almost a period piece, not unlike (on a limited scale) the Morgans and the Rockefellers and other despotic emperors of commerce, now deified as philanthropists. He certainly has their tunnel vision, their touch at the wheel and deal and their insensitivity to intimidation, all of which prompts even his detractors to suggest that he may be without peer in the cobweb corner of sports finance. He is, they say, a shrewd manipulator of men and money, tough as a wharf rat and as charming as a rent collector.

Estimates of the fortune he has made out of Miami football confuse Robbie. "Pure nonsense," he says. If he sold, he says, three or four million would satisfy him. But, really, he adds, "I'm not truly interested in the money." The inflection, the Lyndon Johnson sincerity, carries the right touch for one who qualifies as the poorest man to obtain a sports franchise in the last 20 years; contrary to rumors, he wasn't out in front of a Kuwait oil combine or a Persian rug monopoly. He was, too, unique in other ways. From far off in Minnesota, he was leading a Lebanese consortium, composed of Actor Danny Thomas and Entrepreneur George Hamid, in an assault to the jugular of suspicious Southerners and sniffing sophisticates. Besides, whoever heard of an Arab running anything in Miami? Thomas and Hamid soon found an exit, but not Robbie. He had found an arena (a graveyard for pro football, many thought) worthy of his broken field agility.

Pro football, especially with a new league and expansion, had changed. To some extent it was similar to its early days, that time of the scramble and the gamble. It was, of course, no longer as crude, but the door was flung open for careful plundering. All during the '50s and '60s football was that great bauble that hung up there in finance, just ripe for picking. It offered rich lodes of television revenue and great liquidity: there were no charge accounts and, even better, those who wanted to be assured of a seat paid for the privilege well in advance. One owner, a very prosperous oilman, described a franchise as the surest kind of gamble. With intricate tax escapes and the growing power of the collateral itself, few owners would have to tap resources. A franchise quickly became a property one bought with paper, and it helped if one was an artisan inside the banks.

Like Segovia working a complex arrangement, Joe Robbie is flawless playing the banks. At football games he grandly introduces his lineup of bankers to the press as if he were unveiling new draft choices. "What the hell is this?" somebody asks. "A bankers' convention or the Orange Bowl?" "No," says Joe, "they've just come to inspect the collateral." Yes, says a Chicago banker, "and I must say it is the most interesting collateral I've ever been associated with." Fine, but despite the clubroom atmosphere bankers are not dolts, or terribly impressionable. Ultimately, just what did Joe Robbie have to offer, besides nimbleness and brass?

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