The NFL suspended and fined Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and stripped the team of two draft choices Tuesday for violating league policies governing the integrity of the game. The penalties are a result of the findings of an investigation that arose from tampering and game-tanking allegations made in the racial discrimination lawsuit former Dolphins coach Brian Flores filed in February.
The league concluded that the Dolphins did not attempt to lose games purposefully during the 2019 season in a bid to improve their positioning in the 2020 NFL draft. But it did find that Ross and the Dolphins committed tampering violations involving quarterback Tom Brady, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the agent for former New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton.
The NFL suspended Ross through Oct. 17, removed him from all league committees and fined him $1.5 million. The Dolphins lose their first-round pick in next year’s NFL draft and a third-round selection in 2024, the league said.
“The investigators found tampering violations of unprecedented scope and severity,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a written 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.”
Mary Jo White, a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and former chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, oversaw the investigation, which began after Flores filed his lawsuit Feb. 1. In it, he accused Ross of offering him $100,000 per loss during the 2019 season in an effort to secure the top draft pick the following spring.
“The independent investigation cleared our organization on any issues related to tanking and all of Brian Flores[’s] other allegations,” Ross said in a statement released Tuesday by the Dolphins. “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.”
The investigation found that the Dolphins did not intentionally lose games during the 2019 season and that Ross’s $100,000 offer “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.”
“Every club is expected to make a good faith effort to win every game,” Goodell said. “The integrity of the game, and public confidence in professional football, demand no less. An owner or senior executive must understand the weight that his or her words carry, and the risk that a comment will be taken seriously and acted upon, even if that is not the intent or expectation.”
The Dolphins finished with a 5-11 record in 2019 and used the No. 5 choice in the 2020 draft on quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Quarterback Joe Burrow went first in that draft, to the Cincinnati Bengals.
“The comments made by Mr. Ross did not affect Coach Flores’ commitment to win and the Dolphins competed to win every game,” Goodell said. “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.”
The Dolphins fired Flores in January. He is now a senior defensive assistant and linebackers coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Flores said in a statement released Tuesday by his attorneys that he was “thankful that the NFL’s investigator found my factual allegations against Stephen Ross are true” but “disappointed to learn that the investigator minimized” those accusations.
“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.”
The NFL’s investigation found that the Dolphins had impermissible communications with Brady in 2019 and 2020 while he was under contract with the New England Patriots. The team also had impermissible communications with Brady and his agent, whom the league did not identify by name, during and after the 2021 season, while he was under contract with the Buccaneers.
According to the investigation, the discussions with Brady and his agent “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.”
Flores’s lawsuit stated that Ross began to pressure Flores to “recruit a prominent quarterback in violation of League tampering rules” following the 2019 season. Flores refused but was invited in the winter of 2020 to meet Ross on a yacht for lunch. Ross then told Flores, according to Flores’s lawsuit, “that the prominent quarterback was ‘conveniently’ arriving at the marina.” Flores declined to participate in the meeting and left the yacht, his lawsuit says.
According to the NFL, the Dolphins also had impermissible communications in January 2022 with agent Don Yee about Payton becoming Miami’s coach, without receiving permission from the Saints. Payton stepped aside from the Saints following last season.
Yee, who also represents Brady, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The NFL also fined Bruce Beal, a limited partner and vice chairman of the Dolphins, $500,000 and barred him from attending league meetings through the 2022 season for his role in the communications with Brady. Ross cannot attend any league meetings until next spring. He cannot be at the Dolphins’ facility during his suspension.
“The punishment announced today is obviously inadequate and disheartening,” Flores’s attorneys, Douglas H. Wigdor and John Elefterakis, said in a joint statement. “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 … and force real change upon the NFL.”
White also is conducting the NFL’s ongoing investigation into the latest allegations against the Washington Commanders and their owner, Daniel Snyder.