The NFL announced Tuesday that the Miami Dolphins will forfeit their 2023 first-round draft pick and 2024 third-round pick, while team owner Stephen Ross has been suspended through Oct. 17, following an investigation into whether the organization violated league policies pertaining to the integrity of the game.
The investigation, led by former U.S Attorney and S.E.C. chairperson Mary Jo White, lasted six months and focused on two areas, according to the NFL. The first centered on if the Dolphins violated league tampering rules with quarterback Tom Brady and former Saints head coach Sean Payton while they were under contract with other clubs; the second on if the franchise intentionally lost games during the 2019 season to improve its draft position.
The NFL said Tuesday that the investigation conclusively established that the Dolphins had "impermissible communications" with Brady in 2019-2020 when he was with the Patriots. The Dolphins also had "impermissible communications" with Brady again after the 2021 season while he was a member of the Buccaneers.
"Those discussions began no later than early December 2021 and 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," the league said in Tuesday's release. "Both Messrs. Ross and (Dolphins vice chairman/limited partner Bruce) Beal were active participants in these discussions."
Additionally, the investigation determined Miami had "impermissible communications" with Payton's agent in January 2022 about Payton becoming the Dolphins' head coach.
"Miami did not seek consent from New Orleans to have these discussions, which occurred before Coach Payton announced his decision to retire as head coach of the Saints," the league said. "Following that announcement, Miami requested permission to speak to Coach Payton for the first time, which New Orleans declined to grant."
"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."
NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Tuesday that Brady and Payton would not face league discipline.
Ross also has been fined $1.5 million, has been removed from all NFL committees indefinitely and may not attend any league meeting prior to the Annual League Meeting in 2023. Beal may not attend any league meeting for the remainder of the 2022 season and has been fined $500,000.
"With regards to tampering, I strongly disagree with the conclusions and the punishment," Ross said in a statement Tuesday. "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 investigation began after former Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, whom the team fired at the end of the 2021 season, filed a lawsuit in federal court on Feb. 1 alleging a pattern of racist hiring practices and racial discrimination in the NFL. In the suit, Flores also alleged Ross offered to pay him $100,000 for every loss during the coach's first season in 2019 because he wanted the club to "tank" so it could get the top pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. The Dolphins eventually hired former 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel as their new head coach.
The independent investigation determined that the Dolphins did not intentionally lose games during the 2019 season -- "nor did anyone at the club, including Mr. Ross, instruct Coach Flores to do so." However, the NFL announced that "on a number of occasions during the 2019 season, Mr. Ross expressed his belief that the Dolphins' position in the upcoming 2020 draft should take priority over the team's win-loss record." Those comments concerned 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." Ross then refrained from making such remarks to Flores, per the league.
As to the $100,000 remark alleged in Flores' suit, the investigation determined that "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."
"The independent investigation 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."
Flores, currently a senior defensive assistant for the Steelers, released the following statement in response to the investigation's findings:
"I am thankful that the NFL's investigator found my factual allegations against Stephen Ross are true. 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."
Goodell emphasized Tuesday the importance of the public's confidence in the game.
"Every club is expected to make a good faith effort to win every game," Goodell said in a statement. "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. 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. 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."