The NFL handed down its sentence following a six-month-long investigation into the Miami Dolphins' alleged tampering with Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady and former New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton this past offseason, as well as team owner Stephen Ross allegedly financially incentivizing tanking to former head coach Brian Flores.
The league announced the Dolphins must forfeit their first-round pick in the 2023 draft as well as their third-round pick in 2024. Ross was also fined $1.5 million, suspended through Oct. 17 (the first six weeks of the season), indefinitely removed from all league committees and uninvited from all league meetings until next offseason.
Dolphins vice chairman Bruce Beal was also fined $500,000 and isn't allowed to attend league meetings for the rest of the season.
In Flores' lawsuit against the team after Miami fired him this past offseason, he claimed Ross offered him $100,000 for every loss during the 2019 season
NFL: Dolphins engaged in tampering but didn't tank
The NFL's investigation, led by former U.S. Attorney and SEC chair Mary Jo White, found that Ross and the Dolphins violated league rules against tampering with a player under contract with another club.
The investigation found "no evidence" of tanking during the 2019 season.
The investigation determined the Dolphins, led by Beal, began communicating with Brady as early as 2019 when he was still a member of the New England Patriots. The Dolphins continued those talks during the 2021 season when he played for the Buccaneers, where discussions "focused on Mr. 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," per the NFL.
Miami also spoke with Payton's agent Don Yee (who also represents Brady) in January, per the investigation, while he was head coach of the Saints and before he stepped down at the end of January. The NFL says the Dolphins did not ask the Saints for permission to talk with Payton about becoming the team's head coach until after he announced his resignation, a request the Saints denied.
"The investigators found tampering violations of unprecedented scope and severity," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said 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."
As for tanking, the NFL investigation acknowledged that Ross "expressed his belief that the Dolphins' position in the upcoming 2020 draft should take priority over the team's win-loss record" but that no such effort was made to intentionally lose games. The league cited the Dolphins' wins over the Patriots and the Cincinnati Bengals at the end of the season that worsened Miami's draft position.
As for Flores' allegations that Ross offered to pay him to lose games in 2019, the league found "differing recollections about the wording, timing, and context" of that conversation.
"However phrased, 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," per the NFL.
"These comments, which he took to be suggestions that he lose games, troubled Coach Flores and led him to express his concerns in writing to senior club executives, each of whom assured Coach Flores that everyone, including Mr. Ross, supported him in building a winning culture in Miami. After this, Mr. Ross no longer made any such comments to Coach Flores."
Goodell added in a statement that team owners and senior executives shouldn't make comments like Ross allegedly did.
Ross disagrees with punishment, calls Flores allegations 'false'
Ross released a statement following the NFL's announcement, saying he felt vindicated for the tanking allegations. He disagreed with the punishment for the tampering charges.
Statement from Stephen Ross. pic.twitter.com/Ori647H0oF
— Miami Dolphins (@MiamiDolphins) August 2, 2022
Flores 'disappointed' in NFL's assessment of his allegations
It didn't take long for Flores to respond to the NFL's public announcement of its investigation.
Flores, who is now a defensive coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers, has an active lawsuit against the Dolphins, the New York Giants and the Denver Broncos. Flores released a statement where he appreciated the NFL's acknowledgment of his allegations but was "disappointed" that the allegations were "minimized."
Statement from former Dolphins HC Brian Flores on NFL findings regarding his tanking allegations against Stephen Ross. pic.twitter.com/8FFxFA8Bjj
— Cameron Wolfe (@CameronWolfe) August 2, 2022
Flores' attorneys, Douglas H. Wigdor and John Elefterakis, also said in a statement that the punishment was "inadequate and disheartening" despite the validation of Flores' claims. They called this investigation the "first step" in Flores' allegations being "substantiated."
From Flores’ attorney on Ross:
“…The punishment announced today is obviously inadequate and disheartening. Unfortunately, it remains clear that the NFL cannot police itself, which is why we look forward to continuing to push the legal process, prove all of Brian’s claims ..” pic.twitter.com/mEG3FojwLq
— Brooke Pryor (@bepryor) August 2, 2022