Roger Goodell penalized the Miami Dolphins and owner Stephen Ross on Tuesday for blatant tampering and the suggestion of tanking.
But the NFL’s investigators “minimized” Ross’ offers and pressure to tank games in 2019, in the words of former Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, and Goodell’s punishment fell far short of adequate.
The commissioner took away the Dolphins’ 2023 first-round pick, their 2024 third-round pick, and fined Ross $1.5 million, suspending him through Oct. 17. The commissioner also fined Dolphins vice chairman Bruce Beal $500,000 and banned him from any league meeting this season.
The reason: former U.S. Attorney and SEC Chair Mary Jo White and the Debevoise law firm “found tampering violations of unprecedented scope and severity” during their investigation, Goodell said in a public release on investigators’ findings.
Specifically, the Dolphins had “impermissible communications with quarterback Tom Brady” and his agent, Don Yee, while under contract with both the New England Patriots (2019-20) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2021).
They also had “impermissible communications” with Yee about getting Sean Payton to leave the New Orleans Saints to become the Dolphins’ head coach, prior to Payton’s stepping down.
“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,” Goodell said in a statement. “Similarly, I know of no prior instance in which ownership was so directly involved in the violations.”
Goodell, however, dodged a nuclear punishment of Ross’ desire to tank for a high draft pick in 2019 by hiding behind Flores’ refusal to follow his boss’ suggestions.
In other words: Ross wanted his team to lose on purpose, but because Flores didn’t listen to him and kept the team playing hard, Ross escaped a more severe punishment.
The investigators’ position is 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. No witness contended otherwise. The Dolphins competed hard to win every game.”
Still, in the next breath, the investigators acknowledged 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.
“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 decision said.
Investigators decided that Ross’ “claimed offer” to pay Flores $100,000 to lose games “was not intended or taken to be a serious offer” and said there were “differing recollections about the wording, timing and context.”
So Goodell said he was punishing Ross “even if” he made the comment “in jest” and it was “not intended to be taken seriously.”
“The comments made by Mr. Ross did not affect Coach Flores’ commitment to win and the Dolphins competed to win every game,” the commissioner wrote.
It is hard to read Goodell’s characterization of Ross’ intent with a straight face, though.
“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,” Goodell’s quote read. “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.”
Flores, now a senior defensive assistant with the Pittsburgh Steelers, said in a statement that he was thankful the investigator found “my factual allegations against Stephen Ross are true.”
But “at the same time, I am disappointed to learn that the investigator minimized Mr. Ross’s offers and pressure to tank games,” Flores wrote, “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,” Flores’ statement continued. “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.”
Ross, the Dolphins’ owner, said in a statement that he believed the investigation had “cleared our organization on any issues related to tanking and all of Brian Flores[’] other allegations.”
He arrogantly reiterated that “I strongly disagree with the conclusions and the punishment … with regards to tampering” but said he’ll accept the outcome to move on.
Neither Brady or Payton will receive discipline for their part in the tampering, per the NFL.
It is not clear if Yee, the agent for both player and coach, will be disciplined. The Daily News was awaiting comment from the NFL players’ association on that matter.