Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, his brilliant career indelibly blotted, was assessed a landmark four-game suspension Monday for breaching his sport's integrity in pursuit of a fourth Super Bowl ring.
No quarterback in the history of the National Football League has received such a severe penalty for violating the game's honor code.
"Your actions as set forth in the [Wells] report clearly constitute conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the game of professional football,'' the NFL's chief of football operations, Troy Vincent, stated in a letter to Brady.
In addition to potentially losing their star quarterback for the first quarter of the season, the Patriots were fined $1 million and docked two draft picks — a first-round selection in next year's draft and a fourth-round choice in 2017 — for their role in the Deflategate scandal that has roiled the franchise since the AFC Championship game on Jan. 18.
Brady was not available to comment, but his agent vowed an aggressive appeal.
The penalties, stiffer than many football experts anticipated and harsher than the franchise received for its 2007 Spygate scandal, were authorized by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who has faced withering criticism over perceived inconsistencies in his previous disciplinary decisions.
Goodell, a close friend of Patriots owner Robert Kraft, justified the penalties by citing not only the team's alleged tampering with footballs but Brady's failure to fully cooperate with investigators.
"We relied on the critical importance of protecting the integrity of the game and the thoroughness and independence of the Wells report," Goodell said.
Kraft, who last week said he would accept any punishment despite his serious misgivings about the Wells report's findings, denounced both the penalties and the initial report. "Despite our conviction that there was no tampering with footballs, it was our intention to accept any discipline levied by the league. Today's punishment, however, far exceeded any reasonable expectation,'' Kraft said in a statement. "It was based completely on circumstantial rather than hard or conclusive evidence.
"We are humbled by the support the New England Patriots have received from our fans throughout the world. We recognize our fans' concerns regarding the NFL's penalties and share in their disappointment in how this one-sided investigation was handled.''
Kraft, saying the team's support in Brady was unconditional, added: "Our belief in him has not wavered."
Brady's agent, Don Yee, said in a scathing protest statement that he would appeal the suspension. "This discipline is ridiculous and has no legitimate basis,'' Yee said. "In my opinion, this outcome was predetermined; there was no fairness in the Wells investigation whatsoever . . . Sadly, today's decision diminishes the NFL as it tells its fans, players, and coaches that the games on the field don't count as much as the games played on Park Avenue," the site of NFL headquarters.
The investigation concluded it was more probable than not that Brady effectively looked the other way while two low-level staffers, including a self-described "deflator,'' conspired to secretly remove air pressure from the footballs Brady used in the first half of New England's 45-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts Jan. 18 in the AFC title game.
Alerted to the possible scheme by the Colts both before the game and after a first-half interception of a Brady pass, league officials at halftime tested the air pressure of 11 balls that had been designated for Brady's use. All 11 balls were found to have been below the league's minimum standard for air pressure (12.5 pounds per square inch), with the violations ranging from 1.6 percent to 16 percent below the 12.5 level.
Brady has said he likes his footballs inflated to the lowest permissible levels because they are easier to grip, throw, and catch. But he denied any wrongdoing when news of the possible violations first broke after the AFC title game.
"I would never do anything to break the rules,'' Brady stated in a news conference Jan. 22.
Patriots fans were quick to support the multiple Super Bowl champion, one of New England's most revered sports stars. Kraft, too, emphatically expressed his unconditional belief that Brady and the Patriots had committed no punishable transgression.
But the Wells report stated otherwise. What's more, the investigation revealed that Patriots staffers may have deflated footballs for Brady in previous seasons. "In this case, the footballs were intentionally deflated in an effort to provide a competitive advantage to Tom Brady,'' Vincent wrote Brady and the Patriots. "While we cannot be certain when the activity began, the evidence suggests that January 18th was not the first and only occasion when this occurred, particularly in light of the evidence referring to deflation of footballs going back to before the beginning of the 2014 season.''
The report offered no evidence that Brady directed anyone to deflate the balls. But investigators cited extensive text messages and witness statements as "substantial and credible evidence'' that Brady was "at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities.''
The Patriots last week indefinitely suspended without pay the self-styled "deflator,'' Jim McNally, a game-day attendant in the game officials locker room, and John Jastremski, an assistant equipment staffer.
Should the Patriots reinstate them, the league said in a statement, McNally would be barred from serving as a locker room attendant for officials and from having any involvement with footballs or any other equipment on game days, while Jastremski would be prohibited from preparing, supervising, or handling footballs used in NFL games next season.
As for Brady, he would lose about $2 million in salary should the four-game suspension stand. He would be permitted to participate in all offseason activities, training camp, and preseason games, but he would be barred from NFL stadiums during regular season games.
Given Brady's stature as one of the NFL's most prized assets, he stands a reasonable chance of having the suspension reduced on appeal. But he is given little chance of escaping a suspension altogether, which means the Patriots will open the NFL season in a nationally televised Thursday night game Sept. 10 against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium with Brady nowhere in sight.
If the full suspension is upheld, Brady would return for a Sunday night game on Oct. 18 in Indianapolis against the team that set in motion the enforcement that led to his humiliating suspension.
The league, however, seems intent on sending a strong message, as the Spygate affair remains an albatross for the Patriots. Vincent's letter made clear that the prior bad behavior factored in the $1 million fine and forfeiture of draft picks.
In Spygate, coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots were found to have cheated by videotaping the signals that rival coaches for the New York Jets relayed to their players. Belichick was fined $500,000, the Patriots $250,000, and the team was ordered to forfeit a first-round draft pick in 2008.
"This prior violation of competitive rules was properly considered in determining the discipline in this case,'' Vincent said.
The Patriots also were punished for refusing numerous requests to make McNally available for a final interview and for Brady's refusal to produce any relevant texts or e-mails, "despite being offered extraordinary safeguards by the investigators to protect unrelated personal information.''
"Although we do not hold the club directly responsible for Mr. Brady's refusal to cooperate, it remains significant that the quarterback of the team failed to cooperate fully with the investigation,'' Vincent stated. He said the Patriots also were sanctioned for McNally and Jastremski refusing to be fully candid.
Vincent concluded his letter to Brady with an admonition that once would have seemed unfathomable, considering Brady's previously all-American image. "Each player, no matter how accomplished and otherwise respected, has an obligation to comply with the rules and must be held accountable for his actions when those rules are violated and the public's confidence in the game is called into question," Vincent wrote.
Yee wasn't buying it. Asserting the NFL "has a well-documented history of making poor disciplinary decisions that often are overturned,'' Yee said of Brady's appeal, "If the hearing officer is completely independent and neutral, I am very confident the Wells report will be exposed as an incredibly frail exercise in fact-finding and logic.''
Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.