Stephen Ross purchased a controlling interest in the Miami Dolphins in February of 2008. Since then, the team hasn’t won a single postseason game.
On the field, this has been a disaster — just four winning seasons. They will trot out their ninth head coach during Ross’ reign this fall. The failures stand in contrast with his business career, mainly in real estate, that has delivered him a net worth approaching $10 billion.
At 82 years old, it’s clear his patience for losing is over. Ross wants to win and win by any means necessary, NFL rules be damned.
Tampering for players — namely Tom Brady. Tampering for coaches — namely Sean Payton. Suggesting (supposedly in jest) that tanking for draft picks was a preferred strategy. Whatever was running through Ross’ mind, was going to be verbalized, if not acted upon the past few years.
The rich old guy was tired of getting his teeth kicked in.
It all came tumbling down on Tuesday, when the NFL hit Ross and the Dolphins for “violations of NFL policies relating to the integrity of the game.” For a league loathe to punish its owners, the NFL didn’t hold much back here.
It suspended Ross through mid-October, meaning he can’t attend any Dolphins game or event or attend any NFL meeting. It additionally fined the team $1.5 million and suspended limited partner Bruce Beal for the entire 2022 season.
Perhaps most painful for Ross’s win-now ethos: The franchise was stripped of a 2023 first-round draft pick and a 2024 third-rounder. In a loaded AFC where every bit of talent will be needed to get to a Super Bowl, that will sting.
The NFL was most upset about the egregious tampering violations.
Apparently tired of losing to Brady, who went 17-8 against the Dolphins during Ross’ ownership, Miami went all-in on luring him to South Florida.
The NFL found repeated “impermissible communications” with Brady during the 2019 season, his final in New England. No team, let alone ownership, is allowed to hold such discussions with a player under contract with another franchise. If anyone tried it with a Miami star, Ross would have no doubt flipped out.
Yet the NFL found Beal conducted “numerous and detailed discussions” with Brady and then filled in Ross and other Dolphins executives on what was said.
When Brady left for Tampa Bay, and not Miami, the Dolphins refused to take no for an answer.
During Brady’s 2021 season with Tampa, both Ross and Beal were “active participants” in a series of discussions with Brady and his agent, Don Yee, about Brady becoming a Dolphins executive and limited partner after the season, “although at times they also included the possibility of playing for the Dolphins.”
Brady wound up briefly retiring before returning to the Bucs for the 2022 season.
In January of 2022, the Dolphins also reached out to Payton, the longtime New Orleans coach who was still under contract with the Saints, although he would soon resign to take at least one season off.
None of this qualifies as obscure rule violations. None of this could be brushed off as a mistake or a misunderstanding. Everyone in the NFL, let alone a longtime owner, knows the broad strokes (if not the minute details) of the tampering rules.
The last thing anyone needs is a league where recruiting and poaching goes on nonstop, where players are chatting up rival owners and competitive integrity gets blurred.
This was Ross in a pout, demanding that something bold be done regardless of the guardrails he knew he was supposed to honor.
“The investigators found tampering violations of unprecedented scope and severity,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said. “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.”
Then there were the allegations by former coach Brian Flores that Ross was encouraging the 2019 team to tank games in order to improve their draft position.
The NFL concluded that Ross “expressed his belief that the Dolphins’ position in the upcoming 2020 draft should take priority over the team’s win-loss record” to a number of executives and Flores. It also determined that there was some confusion on whether Ross offered “to pay Coach Flores $100,000 to lose games.”
The NFL stated that “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.”
That was an extremely merciful ruling by the league.
It’s worth noting that Flores’ accusations against his former boss are confirmed here, and even the NFL commended him in its report. And it’s also worth remembering that he and his players kept competing and won games late into the 2019 season.
That’s great, but the mere possibility that a billionaire owner (used to his every whim being followed) was just tossing out the possibility of losing games on purpose is problematic.
The NFL didn’t go easy on Ross, but it sure could have gone a lot tougher.
Ross knows time isn’t on his side. Not in Miami and not anywhere. He has been ramping up his philanthropic giving in recent years, particularly on education initiatives at the University of Michigan (his alma mater) and the cities of Detroit and New York, where he was born and did much of his business, respectively.
He has money. He has power. He just doesn’t have years to burn.
It explains why he was working over Tom Brady in the middle of a Patriots season or questioning the point of 5-11 when 1-15 could have been possible, like some sports radio caller.
It sure doesn’t excuse it though. You can’t buy patience. And in this case, Stephen Ross couldn’t buy a Super Bowl either.