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NFL disciplines Miami Dolphins for team's improper pursuit of Tom Brady

While the franchise was stripped of first- and third-round draft picks, team owner Stephen Ross was suspended and fined $1.5 million. The league cleared the team of "tanking" allegations.

The NFL stripped the Miami Dolphins of two high draft picks and fined owner Stephen Ross for the team's improper pursuit of quarterback Tom Brady, officials said Tuesday.

Brady, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was still under contract with the New England Patriots in 2019-20 when Miami made overtures toward the surefire Hall of Fame signal-caller, against league rules, according to an NFL statement.

"Those communications began as early as August 2019 and continued throughout the 2019 season and post-season," according to the NFL statement, which specifically named Ross and team vice chairman Bruce Beal.

Image: General manager Chris Grier and owner Stephen Ross of the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on September 19, 2021 in Miami, Fla.
General manager Chris Grier and owner Stephen Ross of the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on Sept. 19, 2021, in Miami.Michael Reaves / Getty Images

"These numerous and detailed discussions were conducted by Mr. Beal, who in turn kept Mr. Ross and other Dolphins executives informed of his discussions with Mr. Brady," the statement said.

While millions of average American workers are contacted daily by prospective new employers, professional sports has a well-accepted norm against such practice.

Making overtures to players and executives under contract to another team, "tampering," is strictly prohibited.

Brady shocked the football world when he left New England before the 2020 season, signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Brady led the Bucs to a Super Bowl title in his first season in Florida.

The Dolphins continued to chase Brady even after he signed with Tampa Bay, the NFL said.

"The Dolphins again 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," according to the league.

"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 statement said. "Both Messrs. Ross and Beal were active participants in these discussions."

Representatives of the Patriots and Buccaneers both declined comment Tuesday.

Ross was suspended through Oct. 17 and fined $1.5 million. He's barred from team facilities and cannot represent the team at any event. Additionally, Miami was stripped of its first-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft and its third-round pick of 2024.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said that “investigators found tampering violations of unprecedented scope and severity.”

“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,” he added.

The NFL probe, led by former U.S. Attorney and SEC Chair Mary Jo White, cleared the Dolphins of allegations that they intentionally lost games in 2019 in order to get better draft picks.

"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," according to the league statement.

Brian Flores, the former Dolphins coach now alleging racial discrimination against the NFL in a federal lawsuit, had accused Miami of trying to lose games in a pro sports strategy known as "tanking."

It’s a distasteful but frequently effective pro sports strategy to make winning a low priority so payroll can be kept to a minimum while a team can be rewarded with high choices in the college draft that could lead to success in the future.

In addition to the "tanking" allegations, Flores had accused the Dolphins of improperly recruiting Brady.

"I am thankful that the NFL’s investigator found my factual allegations against Stephen Ross are true," Flores said in a statement. 

"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," the statement said.

Ross said in a statement Tuesday that his team never sought to lose games.

"The independent investigation cleared our organization on any issues related to tanking and all of Brian Flores other allegations. As I have said all along, these allegations were false, malicious and defamatory, and this issue is now put to rest," according to Ross.

The team also denied it tampered with Brady.

"With regards to tampering, I strongly disagree with the conclusions and the punishment," Ross said. "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 NFL also found that the Dolphins had improper contact with then-New Orleans coach Sean Payton's agent this past January, shortly before he retired.

"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."