An NFL-led investigation determined that the Miami Dolphins used “unprecedented” tampering in their failed pursuits of star quarterback Tom Brady and former head coach Sean Payton over the last three seasons, with the league stripping the team of draft picks and suspending and fining owner Stephen Ross in response.
The investigation did not find evidence, however, that the Dolphins intentionally lost games to improve draft position, as former head coach Brian Flores had suggested in a Feb. 1 lawsuit he filed against the Dolphins and Ross.
“The investigators found tampering violations of unprecedented scope and severity,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Tuesday 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.”
The Dolphins will be docked their first-round selection in the 2023 draft and their third-round selection in the 2024 draft. Additionally, the NFL has suspended Ross through Oct. 17 and has fined him $1.5 million. During his suspension, which runs through Week 6 of the season, Ross is forbidden from being at the team facility, representing the Dolphins at any team or league event and attending any NFL meeting prior to the 2023 Annual meeting. Ross will also be removed from all NFL committees indefinitely.
The investigation found that Miami had impermissible contact with Brady dating to August 2019, while he was under contract with the New England Patriots. The contact continued throughout the 2019 season and into the postseason, investigators found.
Bruce Beal, Miami’s vice chairman and limited partner, conducted the contact with Brady, and investigators found that Beal informed Ross and other Dolphins executives about the nature of the conversations.
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Additionally, the report concluded that the Dolphins again had impermissible contact with Brady and his agent, Don Yee, during and after the 2021 season. This round of communications began no later than early December of that year, investigators found, and had the nature of Brady “becoming a limited partner in the Dolphins and possibly serving as a football executive, although at times they also included the possibility of his playing for the Dolphins.” Investigators found that both Ross and Beal were “active participants” in those communications.
Investigators also found that the Dolphins had impermissible contact with Yee in January 2022 about the possibility of having Payton, who was then the coach of the New Orleans Saints, to serve as Miami’s head coach. The investigation found that the Dolphins did not contact the Saints prior to making that inquiry to Yee and found that Miami’s impermissible contact came before Payton announced his retirement from coaching on Jan. 25. At that point, the Dolphins requested permission to speak to Payton, a request the Saints declined to grant.
The announcement comes after a six-month investigation led by former U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White and a team of lawyers at Debevoise.
Beal has been fined $500,000 and is forbidden from attending any league meeting for the rest of the 2022 season.
In his lawsuit against the team, Flores said that Ross offered to pay him an additional $100,000 during the 2019 season to improve Miami’s position in the 2020 draft by deliberately losing games.
The investigation “conclusively established” that the Dolphins did not intentionally lose games during that year and that no one at the team, including Ross, instructed Flores to lose games on purpose.
The investigation did find, however, that Ross, “on a number of occasions during the 2019 season,” expressed his thought that Miami’s draft position in 2020 “should take priority over the team’s win-loss record.” Investigators found these comments were made most frequently to team president and CEO Tom Garfinkel, but also to general manager Chris Grier, senior vice president Brandon Shore and Flores.
Flores took those comments as suggestions that he should intentionally lose games, so he wrote senior executives at the team, who later assured Flores, according to investigators, that everyone, including Ross, supported Flores in “building a winning culture in Miami.” Investigators found that Ross did not make any similar comments to Flores following that.
As to the alleged offer of $100,000, investigators found “differing recollections about the wording, timing, and context” but “such a comment was not intended or taken to be a serious offer, nor was the subject pursued in any respect” by Ross or anyone else at the Dolphins.
“Even if made in jest and not intended to be taken seriously, comments suggesting that draft position is more important than winning can be misunderstood and carry with them an unnecessary potential risk to the integrity of the game,” Goodell said. “The comments made by Mr. Ross did not affect Coach Flores’ commitment to win and the Dolphins competed to win every game. Coach Flores is to be commended for not allowing any comment about the relative importance of draft position to affect his commitment to win throughout the season.”
In a statement posted to the team’s Twitter account, Ross said he strongly disagreed with the tampering punishment but that he would “accept the outcome” so as to not create “distractions for our team as we begin an exciting and winning season.”
Flores said in his own statement that he was “disappointed to learn that the investigator minimized Mr. Ross’s offers and pressure to tank games.”
“While the investigator found that the Dolphins had engaged in impermissible tampering of ‘unprecedented scope and severity,’ Mr. Ross will avoid any meaningful consequence,” Flores said. “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.”