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NFL punishes Miami Dolphins owner over inquiry into tanking, tampering and Tom Brady

Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is being hit with a $1.5 million fine and suspended through Oct. 17, after an NFL investigation into tampering and other allegations.
Wilfredo Lee
Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is being hit with a $1.5 million fine and suspended through Oct. 17, after an NFL investigation into tampering and other allegations.

The NFL says the Miami Dolphins and team owner Stephen Ross violated the "integrity of the game" numerous times since 2019, from repeatedly contacting Tom Brady when he was under contract elsewhere to Ross suggesting during the 2019 season that the team should lose games to help its draft position.

As punishment, the NFL hit Ross with a $1.5 million fine and suspended him through Oct. 17 — the day after the Dolphins play their sixth game of the upcoming season.

"During this period, he may not be present at the Dolphins' facility and may not represent the club at any team or NFL event," the NFL said. The league also barred Ross from any league meetings until next year, and removed him from all league committees indefinitely.

The Dolphins are also being punished, losing their first-round pick in the 2023 draft and their third-round selection in the 2024 draft. In addition to Ross, the NFL levied a $500,000 fine on Bruce Beal, the team's vice chairman and limited partner who handled some of the improper communications.

"The investigators found tampering violations of unprecedented scope and severity," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said as the league announced its findings. "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."

The tampering accusations touched on two NFL stars

The NFL says its investigation found the Dolphins broke league anti-tampering rules three times, when it contacted Tom Brady twice and asked the agent for then-New Orleans Coach Sean Payton about hiring him without asking the Saints for permission.

Brady was still under contract with the New England Patriots and the quarterback's future was the subject of speculation when the Dolphins' Beal first got in touch with him as early as August 2019, the NFL said. The league also says both Beal and Ross "had impermissible communications with both Mr. Brady and his agent during and after the 2021 season, while he was under contract to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers."

The Dolphins broke the rules again in January, the NFL said, when the team got in touch with Payton's agent, Don Yee before the successful coach announced his retirement.

The inquiry followed Miami's rocky split with former coach Brian Flores

Former Dolphins Coach Brian Flores has previously said Miami's leadership wanted to "tank" in 2019 — to lose games in a bid to ensure a strong position in the next year's draft. The NFL says it determined the team did not intentionally lose games, but it also said Ross, the owner, repeatedly spoke about his desire for the team to prioritize a good draft spot over wins.

Despite Ross's comments, "The Dolphins competed hard to win every game," the NFL stated, "including at the end of the season when they beat Cincinnati and New England, despite worsening Miami's position in the 2020 draft."

Still, the league investigation found that Ross repeatedly said the team's draft position mattered more than its win-loss record, in comments he made to several Dolphins executives and to Flores.

The NFL inquiry also seems to substantiate a claim that Ross offered to pay Flores $100,000 for every game he lost — but it adds that the details around those remarks are hazy, and neither Flores, Ross or anyone else with the team pursued the idea.

"I know of no prior instance in which ownership was so directly involved in the violations," Goodell said.

Of Flores, he added, "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."

Flores is currently on the Pittsburgh Steelers' coaching staff. He's also leading a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in the NFL.

Ross responds to NFL punishment

In response to the NFL's announcement, Ross issued a brief statement saying that Flores' accusations against him are "false, malicious and defamatory."

Of the tampering issue, Ross stated, "I strongly disagree with the conclusions and the punishment. However, I will accept the outcome" to avoid any distractions from the Dolphins starting "an exciting and winning season."

The Dolphins start their regular season on Sept. 11 — hosting the Patriots.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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