MIAMI — The NFL is disciplining the Miami Dolphins for having impermissible communications with Tom Brady while he was under contract with the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as well as for inappropriate conversations with now-former New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton about bringing him to Miami.
A law firm's six-month investigation stemmed from former Head Coach Brian Flores' racial discrimination lawsuit against the NFL. Looking into allegations from 2019-2022, the lawyers found the Dolphins had violated league policies governing the integrity of professional football. Debevoise lawyers, led by former U.S. Attorney and SEC Chair Mary Jo White, looked into whether the franchise had spoken with players or coaches under contract with other clubs and whether they had intentionally lost any games to improve their draft position in 2020. They also investigated whether Dolphins Chairman and Managing General Partner Stephen Ross had floated financial incentives to Flores in the hopes of getting the coach to make the team lose on purpose.
The investigation concluded Miami had not purposefully lost games in 2019, and nobody had instructed Flores to try to do so.
"The Dolphins competed hard to win every game, including at the end of the season when they beat Cincinnati and New England, despite worsening Miami's position in the 2020 draft," the NFL wrote in a statement.
While investigators found Ross had expressed a belief that the team's position in the 2020 draft should be prioritized over its win-loss record, their probe found these conversations were never supposed to be taken seriously.
"These comments, which he took to be suggestions that he lose games, troubled Coach 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. After this, Mr. Ross no longer made any such comments to Coach Flores," the NFL said.
The league said there was a claim that Ross offered to pay Flores $100,000 to lose games, although investigators noted the people it interviewed recalled the wording, timing and context differently.
"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 NFL said.
However, while investigators did not determine that the Dolphins had been tanking their performance to improve their draft position, the legal team did find at least three violations of the NFL's Anti-Tampering policy. And, the accusations include mentions of current Bucs quarterback Tom Brady.
The law firm found the Dolphins had unacceptable contact with Brady in 2019-2020 when he was with the Patriots. The league said "numerous and detailed discussions" were facilitated by Dolphins Vice Chairman Bruce Beal, who kept Ross and other top executives informed about the discussions with Brady.
Then during and after the 2021 season, investigators found the Dolphins franchise had more impermissible talks with both Brady and his agent. At the time, Brady was under contract with 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 NFL wrote in a statement. "Both Messrs. Ross and Beal were active participants in these discussions."
The lawyers found the Dolphins' tampering violations were not limited to discussions with Brady.
"In January 2022, the Dolphins had impermissible communications with Don Yee, the agent for New Orleans Saints' head coach Sean Payton, about having Mr. Payton serve as Miami's head coach," the NFL said. "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."
After Payton's retirement was announced, the Dolphins asked for permission to talk to Payton, but the NFL said New Orleans declined to grant permission.
"The investigators found tampering violations of unprecedented scope and severity," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote 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."
Based on the investigation's findings, the Dolphins must forfeit their first-round selection in the 2023 NFL draft and the team's third-round selection in the 2024 draft.
The NFL is suspending Ross through Oct. 17, 2022, and issuing him a large fine.
"During this period, he may not be present at the Dolphins' facility and may not represent the club at any team or NFL event. He may not attend any League meeting prior to the Annual Meeting in 2023, is removed from all League committees indefinitely, and fined $1.5 million," the NFL wrote.
Beal is also banned from attending any League meetings for the rest of the 2022 season and will be fined $500,000.
"This discipline is informed by the Competition Committee's clear guidance that more stringent discipline, including suspensions, should be imposed for tampering violations to deter future violations and to safeguard the integrity of the game," the NFL said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.