The NFL announced today that they will suspend Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and dock the team a 2023 first-round pick and a 2024 third-round pick after an investigation determined the Dolphins inappropriately tampered with Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady and former New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton.
NFL hands down tampering discipline to Miami Dolphins, Stephen Ross
In a press release, the NFL laid out its six-month investigation into the Dolphins, led by former U.S. Attorney and SEC Chair Mary Jo White. The league examined whether Miami tampered with Brady and Payton while they were still under contract with other NFL teams, and they also looked into allegations that the Dolphins tanked for draft position in 2019 (and whether Ross encouraged the team to do so via financial incentives).
The NFL found that the Dolphins had “impermissible communications” with Brady on two occasions. First, Miami contacted Brady as early as August 2019, and through the regular season and playoffs, while he was still a member of the New England Patriots. These conversations were led by Bruce Beal, the Dolphins’ vice chairman, who kept Ross and other Miami decision-makers abreast of the discussions.
The Dolphins again inappropriately contacted Brady in 2021 while he was under contract with the Buccaneers. Ross and Beal were both involved in these talks, which included the concept of Brady becoming a limited partner and/or football executive with the Dolphins. Per the NFL, these conversations “at times” involved the idea of Brady playing quarterback for the Dolphins.
In January 2022, Miami contacted Payton’s agent, Don Yee (who also represents Brady), and expressed an interest in hiring Payton as head coach. However, Payton was still under contract with the Saints and had not yet announced his plan to retire. New Orleans had no knowledge of these discussions. After Payton made his retirement public, the Saints refused to grant the Dolphins permission to speak with their former coach.
“The investigators found tampering violations of unprecedented scope and severity,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “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.”
NFL finds no evidence of tanking
While the NFL determined that the Dolphins tampered with Brady and Payton, the league did not find Miami had intentionally lost games during the 2019 campaign. Ross did not instruct anyone with the team to purposely tank games for a better draft position, and “no witness contended otherwise.”
However, Ross did make comments suggesting that the Dolphins’ 2020 draft position should take precedence over their 2019 on-field results. While Ross largely made those suggestions to Dolphins president and CEO Tom Garfinkel, he also echoed the same sentiment to general manager Chris Grier and former head coach Brian Flores.
Per the NFL, Flores took Ross’ comments as an indication to lose games, and he brought his concerns in writing to the team’s executives. The club convinced Flores that Ross and the rest of the club’s decision-makers were committed to a winning culture, and Ross no longer made any suggestions about Miami’s 2020 draft position.
Flores, who was fired after the 2021 season and subsequently sued the NFL and the Dolphins for racial discrimination, alleged that Ross had offered him $100,000 per loss in 2019. According to the league, there are “differing recollections about the wording, timing, and context” of Ross’ remarks to Flores, but “such a comment was not intended or taken to be a serious offer, nor was the subject pursued in any respect by Mr. Ross or anyone else at the club.”
League levies punishment, Ross and Flores issue statements
Miami will lose both its first-round pick in 2023 and its third-round pick in 2024 as a result of tampering with Brady and Payton. The Dolphins previously held two first-round selections in 2023 (both theirs and the San Francisco 49ers’), but Miami will sacrifice its own first-rounder, regardless of which pick ends up higher in next year’s draft.
Meanwhile, Ross will be suspended through Oct. 17, 2022, and will be fined $1.5 million. Beal, who orchestrated talks with Brady, will be fined $500,000 and banned from attending any league meetings during the 2022 season.
“The independent investigations cleared our organization on any issues related to tanking and all of Brian Flores’ other allegations,” Ross said in a statement. “As I have said all along, these allegations were false, malicious, and defamatory, and this issue is now put to rest.
“With regards to tampering, I strongly disagree with the conclusions and the punishment. However, I will accept the outcome because the most important thing is that there be no distractions for our team as we begin an exciting and winning season. I will not allow anything to get in the way of that.”
Flores, now an assistant with the Pittsburgh Steelers, also released a statement in the wake of today’s announcement.
“I am thankful that the NFL’s investigator found my factual allegations against Stephen Ross are true,” Flores said. “At the same time, I am disappointed to learn that the investigator minimized Mr. Ross’s offers and pressure to tank games especially when I wrote and submitted a letter at the time to Dolphins executives documenting my serious concerns regarding this subject at the time which the investigator has in her possession.
“While the investigator found that the Dolphins had engaged in impermissible tampering of ‘unprecedented scope and severity,’ Mr. Ross will avoid any meaningful consequence. There is nothing more important when it comes to the game of football itself than the integrity of the game. When the integrity of the game is called into question, fans suffer, and football suffers.”