The NFL stripped the Miami Dolphins of their 2023 first-round NFL Draft pick and punished owner Stephen Ross on Tuesday for tampering with star quarterback Tom Brady and rival coach Sean Payton.
The penalties were handed down after the conclusion of a six-month probe by independent investigator Mary Jo White on allegations of tampering and tanking games.
"The investigators found tampering violations of unprecedented scope and severity," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said.
Ross and Dolphins vice chairman Bruce Beal were found to have violated NFL anti-tampering rules by "impermissible communications" with seven-time Super Bowl champion Brady while he was under contract to the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers and with Payton while he coached the New Orleans Saints.
The Dolphins will forfeit their 2023 first-round pick and their 2024 third-round choice.
Ross was fined $1.5 million and suspended through October 17. He cannot go to the Dolphins' facility or represent the club and team at NFL gatherings during the span. He was removed from all NFL committees.
Beal was fined $500,000 and banned from league meetings for the 2022 season.
"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," Goodell said.
"Similarly, I know of no prior instance in which ownership was so directly involved in the violations."
Tanking allegations raised by former Dolphins coach Brian Flores against Ross, including financial incentives and other encouragement to deliberately lose games, were not punished. The probe supported Flores and concerns about comments made by Ross but found there were no serious offers made to reward lost games.
Beal was found to have made improper contact with Brady from August 2019 through the 2019 playoffs while he was with the Patriots, what were described as "numerous and detailed discussions" with reports to Ross.
There was also contact with Brady after the 2021 season when Brady was still under contract to Tampa Bay before his brief retirement and return to the Bucs.
Ross and Beal contacted Brady about becoming a limited partner and possibly an executive and quarterback with the Dolphins.
Payton's agent was contacted last January about a head coaching job with the Dolphins before announcing his retirement. The Saints were not asked to allow such contact.
- 'Strongly disagree' -
Ross said he would not fight the sanctions in order to avoid becoming a distraction to the team.
"With regards to tampering, I strongly disagree with the conclusions and the punishment," Ross said in a statement.
"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."
The probe found the Dolphins did not deliberately lose 2019 games to improve the team's position in the 2020 draft nor did Ross instruct such actions.
But it found Ross said "on a number of occasions" that draft position should take priority over record and Flores expressed concern to club executives about such remarks.
In relation to Flores alleging he was offered $100,000 to lose games, the probe found there were "differing recollections about the wording, timing and context" but it was not meant as a serious offer.
"The comments made by Mr. Ross did not affect coach Flores' commitment to win and the Dolphins competed to win every game," Goodell said.
Ross said the investigation "cleared our organization on any issues related to tanking... these allegations were false, malicious and defamatory and this issue is now put to rest."
Flores, now a defensive assistant coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers, said he was "thankful that the NFL's investigator found my factual allegations against Stephen Ross are true."
"At the same time, I'm disappointed to learn that the investigator minimized Mr. Ross's offers and pressure to tank games," Flores said. "Mr. Ross will avoid any meaningful consequence."