Tom Brady not only violated his sport’s integrity by participating in a scheme to tamper with the inflation levels of footballs but actively tried to cover up the conspiracy, National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell ruled Tuesday, upholding the Patriot quarterback’s four-game suspension.
In a stunning statement, Goodell alleged that Brady’s “very troubling’’ coverup effort involved instructing his assistant to destroy his cellphone less than 24 hours before he was interviewed by Ted Wells, the NFL’s special investigator in Deflategate.
The scandal rose from the charge that Patriots equipment attendants improperly deflated footballs below the league standard before Brady led the team to a 45-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Jan. 18 in the American Football Conference Championship game.
Goodell said Brady knew Wells sought evidence from his phone, which contained nearly 10,000 text messages in the previous four months, including the period of the alleged tampering.
The case has attracted national attention because of Brady’s stature as a four-time Super Bowl champion and widespread suspicions that the Patriots have improperly cut corners while attaining their championships.
“Rather than simply failing to cooperate, Mr. Brady made a deliberate effort to ensure that investigators would never have access to information that he had been asked to produce,’’ Goodell wrote in a 20-page decision denying Brady’s appeal of his suspension.
Brady’s action “leads me to conclude that he was attempting to conceal evidence of his personal involvement in the tampering scheme,’’ Goodell ruled.
Brady has denied any wrongdoing, and the NFL Players Association vowed Tuesday to appeal “this outrageous decision’’ in federal court. A judge could delay Brady’s suspension until a court resolves the issue.
The players union downplayed the significance of Brady’s destroyed phone and asserted that he provided league officials all of the information they sought.
“The fact that the NFL would resort to basing a suspension on a smoke screen of irrelevant text messages instead of admitting that they have all of the phone records they asked for is a new low, even for them, but it does nothing to correct their errors,’’ the union asserted in a prepared statement.
Brady’s agent, Don Yee, also attacked the ruling.
“The commissioner’s decision is deeply disappointing but not surprising because the appeal process was thoroughly lacking in procedural fairness,’’ Yee said.
Calling the process “a sham,’’ Yee said, “The decision is wrong and has no basis, and it diminishes the integrity of the game.’’
The NFL, anticipating Brady’s appeal, immediately went to the US District Court in New York and filed a statement citing the commissioner’s power under the collective bargaining agreement to punish players for conduct detrimental to the sport.
The Patriots — who previously agreed to pay a $1 million fine and forfeit a first-round pick in the 2016 draft and a fourth-rounder in 2017 because of the scandal — expressed extreme disappointment in Goodell’s ruling Tuesday.
“We cannot comprehend the league’s position in this matter,’’ the Patriots statement said. “Most would agree that the penalties levied originally were excessive and unprecedented, especially in light of the fact that the league has no hard evidence of wrongdoing.’’
The Patriots accused the NFL of “attempting to destroy the reputation of one of its greatest players and representatives.”
Goodell’s finding that Brady “willfully obstructed’’ the league’s investigation by having his cellphone destroyed raised the stakes in the controversy. When Troy Vincent, the NFL’s chief of football operations, issued Brady’s four-game suspension in May, he couched his findings to say it was “more probable than not’’ that Brady was “at least generally aware’’ that Patriots equipment attendants had improperly deflated his footballs.
Goodell dropped such qualifiers in accusing Brady of both participating in the tampering and trying to cover it up.
“Notwithstanding my enormous respect for his accomplishments on the field and for his contributions and role in the community, I find that, with respect to the game balls used in the AFC Championship game and subsequent investigation, Mr. Brady engaged in conduct detrimental to the integrity of, and public confidence in, the game of professional football,’’ Goodell concluded.
Wells had developed potentially damaging evidence of tampering from the cellphones of Patriots football ball attendants Jim McNally and John Jastremski, and he began asking for Brady’s phone records more than two weeks before he interviewed the quarterback March 6. Wells did so again during the session.
At no time during that period did Brady disclose that his cellphone had been destroyed, according to Goodell. He said records show Brady stopped using the phone no earlier than March 5 and no later than March 6, the day of the interview.
What’s more, Brady did not inform the NFL that he had the phone destroyed until June 18 and did not confirm it until his 10-hour appeal hearing June 23 at NFL headquarters in New York, Goodell stated.
Brady testified during the hearing that he routinely destroys his phones and SIM cards or directs his assistant to do so when he begins using a new one, as he did before the Wells interview. However, Goodell cited evidence that Brady did not destroy the cellphone he stopped using Nov. 6, 2014, before the one in question.
A forensic expert for the players union, Brad Maryman, submitted testimony at the hearing about Brady’s cellphone use. But Goodell described the analysis as extremely limited and of little value.
“All we know is that Mr. Brady exchanged nearly 10,000 text messages with many individuals over this period of approximately four months’’ ending March 6 on the phone he destroyed, Goodell stated. That equates to 80 texts per day.
Yee took issue with Goodell’s characterizations.
“We presented the commissioner with an unprecedented amount of electronic data, all of which is incontrovertible,’’ Yee said, although he did not specify the nature or content of the data.
“Tom was completely transparent,’’ Yee said. “All of the electronic information was ignored; we don’t know why. The extent to which Tom opened up his private life to the commissioner will become clear in the coming days.’’
If McNally or Jastremski had any information that might clear Brady, Goodell never received it because Brady’s legal team declined the commissioner’s invitation to testify during or after Brady’s hearing.
The Patriots have indefinitely suspended both employees.
Goodell suggested it was odd that Brady would not want McNally or Jastremski to testify because “both presumably would have firsthand knowledge of the facts related to Mr. Brady’s denials.’’
McNally also has never been interviewed by investigators about why he described himself as “the deflator,’’ among other damaging statements he made in text exchanges with Jastremski. The Patriots produced a rebuttal statement in May in which they asserted McNally’s moniker came from his losing weight.
Goodell said the evidence from Brady’s hearing included a 450-page transcript, more than 300 exhibits, and more than 30 summaries of interviews conducted by NFL security officials before Wells launched his investigation.
The union submitted studies, including one by the American Enterprise Institute, aimed at refuting the NFL’s conclusions about the inflation levels of Brady’s footballs in the AFC title game. The NFL said all 11 balls were found to be deflated below the league’s minimum standard of 12.5 pounds per square inch after they were approved by an official before the game.
Goodell ruled that the deflation could not be attributed to environmental, physical, or other natural factors, as Brady’s legal team and the Patriots have asserted.
“Instead, at least a substantial part of the decline was the result of tampering,’’ he said.
Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.