What we know of the NFL’s discipline of the Miami Dolphins
A busy week of NFL discipline continued on Tuesday, when the league stripped the Miami Dolphins of their 2023 first-round pick, among other penalties, for tampering violations of “unprecedented scope and severity,” according to commissioner Roger Goodell.
The announcement came just one day after an independent disciplinary officer suspended Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson for six games for sexual misconduct during massage sessions. It’s been six months since former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores filed a class-action lawsuit against the league, accusing the New York Giants and Denver Broncos of conducting sham interviews to meet Rooney Rule requirements and accusing the Dolphins of incentivizing losses and applying pressure to improperly recruit Tom Brady.
The ruling on Tuesday addressed the last two items on that docket. Sham interviews and other potentially illegal labor practices are still being addressed in court.
In the end, an independent investigation led by former U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White uncovered one of the league’s most extensive cases of tampering. The Dolphins tried for two years to bring in Brady and coach Sean Payton, both of whom were under contract with other teams. In a statement, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said he “strongly disagrees with the conclusions and punishment,” but the league said there would be no appeal.
Here’s a closer look at what we know so far, including the semantics involved in public statements about tampering, and what might happen next.
What action did the Dolphins take?
According to the investigation, the Dolphins spent two years trying to entice Brady to join the team, first from the New England Patriots and then from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The majority of the discussions centered on becoming a limited partner, a team executive, and even the team’s quarterback. “No club, nor any person employed by or otherwise affiliated with a club, is permitted to tamper with a player who is under contract to or whose exclusive negotiating rights are held by another club,” according to the NFL’s anti-tampering policy.
Furthermore, the investigation discovered that the Dolphins spoke with Payton’s agent in January 2022, before Payton resigned as Saints coach. Even after Payton announced his departure on Jan. 25, the Dolphins would have needed Saints permission to speak with him. “An employee under contract (including a head coach, general manager, or other ‘high level’ employee) who voluntarily resigns or retires prior to the expiration of his contract is prohibited from discussing or accepting employment with another NFL club without the consent of his previous club,” according to the policy.
The Dolphins did request permission to speak with Payton after his resignation, according to the investigation, but the Saints declined.
What are the consequences?
The Dolphins gave up one of their two first-round picks in 2023, as well as a third-round pick in 2024. Ross was fined $1.5 million and his license was suspended until October 17, 2022. According to an NFL source, the punishment consists of a six-game suspension. The Dolphins face the Minnesota Vikings in Week 6 on October 16.
Ross has also been removed from all of his current committee assignments, including finance, media, international, and legalized sports gambling.
Bruce Beal, the Dolphins’ limited partner who was found to have conducted many of the conversations with Brady and his agent, was fined $500,000 and barred from attending any league meetings until the end of the 2022 season.
Is this what Flores said?
Flores claimed that the Dolphins tried to draw him into the scheme to recruit Brady on multiple occasions, in addition to the accusations of sham interviews and incentivizing losing by offering monetary rewards. He refused.
So the Dolphins were attempting to sign Payton and Brady for the 2022 season?
That is what the investigation discovered. To replace Flores, the Dolphins hired San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel and retained Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback.
According to ESPN’s Jeff Darlington, NFL owners would have had to vote to approve Brady serving as a player, executive, and/or limited partner for the Dolphins.
What else was discovered during the investigation?
The NFL said it investigated Flores’ claim that Ross offered him $100,000 to lose games in his first season as Dolphins coach in 2019. It was discovered that Ross told multiple people in the organization, including Flores, that the 2020 draft should take precedence over winning in 2019. Flores misinterpreted his boss’s comments as a suggestion to lose, but the investigation revealed that the team never intentionally lost a game.
The investigation discovered “differing recollections about the wording, timing, and context” regarding the $100,000 offer. Regardless, the NFL stated, “[S]uch a remark was not intended or interpreted as a serious offer, nor was the subject pursued in any way by Mr. Ross or anyone else at the club.”
According to Ross, the investigation “cleared our organization on any tanking issues.” Is that correct?
It’s true that the Dolphins didn’t tank, but that doesn’t mean Ross didn’t want them to, especially when it came to prioritizing draft position over winning. The investigation also did not fully resolve whether Ross provided Flores with a financial incentive to lose, instead citing “differing recollections” about it. And just because it wasn’t meant to be a serious offer doesn’t mean it wasn’t taken seriously.
Flores said in his statement, “I am disappointed to learn that the investigator minimized Mr. Ross’ offers and pressure to tank games, especially when I wrote and submitted a letter to Dolphins executives at the time documenting my serious concerns.”
Why would it have been such a big deal if the Dolphins were discovered to be losing on purpose?
The NFL’s core product is unscripted drama. Goodell stated in his statement that “every club is expected to make a good faith effort to win every game.” Anything less, he said, would jeopardize “the integrity of the game and public trust in professional football.”
Are these punishments unheard of?
It’s not the first time a team has given up a first-round pick due to disciplinary issues. The Patriots did it twice, once after “Spygate” in 2008 and again in 2016 after “Deflategate.” In those cases, such as in 2023, the first round will have 31 picks rather than 32.
Meanwhile, the Saints lost two second-round picks in 2013 due to “Bountygate.”
Owners have also been docked more than $1.5 million, most recently Dan Snyder of the Washington Commanders ($10 million). There have previously been suspended owners. For example, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay was suspended six games in 2014 after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor count of driving while intoxicated.
Has there been a lot of tampering in recent years?
Some, but nothing on this scale.
The Kansas City Chiefs were docked a third-round pick in 2016 and a sixth-round pick in 2017 for improperly communicating with free agent receiver Jeremy Maclin. Meanwhile, the Detroit Lions lost a sixth-round pick in 2012 and were forced to swap fifth-round picks with Kansas City in 2011 for improper contact with Chiefs safety Jarrad Page.
Can Ross continue to lead the team while he is suspended?
According to the league’s announcement, he is not permitted to be present at the team’s facility or to represent the team or league at an NFL event or at league meetings. That is nearly identical to the language used to announce Irsay’s suspension in 2014.
Why weren’t Brady and Payton punished?
The anti-tampering policy is aimed at clubs that intervene in the contracts of other clubs, rather than at the targets of the attempted intervention.
Tampering is defined as “any interference by a member club with another club’s employer-employee relationship or any attempt by a club to impermissibly induce a person to seek employment with that club or the NFL.”
Brady, like any other player, would face discipline under the personal conduct policy, which makes no mention of tampering.
What effect does the loss of a first- and third-round pick have on the Dolphins’ ability to build a team?
Dolphins general manager Chris Grier stated that keeping both of the team’s first-round picks in 2023, as well as their second-round pick and two third-round picks, was a top priority. Why? To hedge their bet on quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, most likely. The Dolphins had five first-round picks to use if Tagovailoa developed, or to move up significantly in the first round and tap into what should be a strong quarterback class if he did not.
They gave up a significant asset in their first-round pick in 2023, but they still have the San Francisco 49ers’ first-round pick in 2023, which they could package with their own first-round pick in 2024 if necessary. Losing their third-round pick in 2024 is unfortunate, but it should not have a significant impact on their plans.
What comes next?
Flores’ lawsuit, which alleges violations of federal and state civil/human rights statutes meant to ensure equal rights, is still pending in court. The NFL moved the lawsuit to its in-house arbitration process in June, but a decision isn’t expected until late summer at the earliest.