New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady probably was aware that footballs used in the team’s conference championship game were intentionally underinflated, according to a report commissioned by the National Football League.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft didn’t know about it, the report said.
The investigation concluded it was more probable than not that two Patriots’ staffers -- officials locker room attendant Jim McNally and equipment assistant John Jastremski -- participated in a deliberate plan to circumvent league rules by releasing air from Patriots’ game balls after the examination of the footballs by NFL officials at the American Football Conference title game on Jan. 18.
Brady was at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities of McNally and Jastremski, according to the 139-page report, which based its findings on scientific tests, interviews with 65 witnesses, and e-mails, phone calls and text messages. The three-month investigation was led by New York attorney Ted Wells, whom the NFL also hired to investigate the 2013 Miami Dolphins bullying scandal.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent will determine discipline in the case and what changes in protocols may be needed to avoid similar incidents in the future. While the report doesn’t say Brady directed the balls to be deflated, he and the Patriots could face fines or an NFL suspension.
“Throughout the process of this nearly four-month investigation, we have cooperated and patiently awaited its outcome,” Kraft said in a statement. “To say we are disappointed in its findings, which do not include any incontrovertible or hard evidence of deliberate deflation of footballs at the AFC Championship Game, would be a gross understatement.
During Super Bowl week, Kraft said he expected an apology from the NFL if the probe showed no wrongdoing by his team.
‘‘We understand and greatly respect the responsibility of being one of 32 in this league,’’ Kraft said in his statement. ‘‘On that basis, we will accept the findings of the report and take the appropriate actions based on those findings as well as any discipline levied by the league.’’
Andrew Brandt, a former Green Bay Packers executive who’s now a business analyst for ESPN, said the key question is whether the NFL holds the Patriots and Kraft accountable when factoring discipline. In March, Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay was suspended from the league’s competition committee for at least three months even though an NFL investigation found he didn’t know the team was improperly using recorded crowd noise at home games during the 2013 season.
The probe began after several footballs supplied by the Patriots were found to be below the league’s 12.5 to 13.5 pounds per-square-inch requirement. Balls inflated less may be easier for a quarterback to throw and receivers to catch, particularly in wet or cold conditions.
A steady rain fell throughout the Patriots’ 45-7 win against the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC title game that sent New England to the Super Bowl for a record-tying eighth time. The controversy overshadowed the two weeks ahead of the Feb. 1 Super Bowl in Glendale, Arizona, where the Patriots beat the Seattle Seahawks 28-24 to win their fourth Super Bowl title in the past 14 years.
Brady, 37, said in January that he had no explanation for the underinflated footballs, maintaining that he didn’t alter the game balls and didn’t think anyone else had. The two-time NFL Most Valuable Player has won four Super Bowl titles during his 15-year career with the Patriots, is married to supermodel Gisele Bundchen and has endorsements with Uggs, Glaceau Smartwater and Movado watches.
The NFL’s investigation sought to determine whether the Patriots not only may have gained a competitive advantage, but whether they compromised the integrity of the most popular U.S. sport. The NFL has $9.7 billion in revenue and the Super Bowl is annually the most-watched television program, drawing a record audience of 114.4 million in the U.S. this year.
Investigators waited until after the Super Bowl to meet with Brady and other Patriots players.
Brady didn’t join his teammates when the Patriots visited the White House last month, citing a family commitment. President Barack Obama poked fun at the NFL investigation during the visit, saying that he usually tells a bunch of jokes at these events, but ‘‘with the Patriots in town, I was worried that 11 out of 12 of them would fall flat.”
The NFL’s game operations manual says if a game ball is altered after it has been approved by the referee, the person responsible “and, if appropriate, the head coach or other club personnel will be subject to discipline, including but not limited to, a fine of $25,000.”
Investigators said Brady refused to provide his e-mails, text messages and phone records. He initially laughed off the allegations the day after the AFC championship game, when a report about underinflated footballs first emerged, then said three days later that it was a “very serious topic” because it affected the integrity of the sport. Brady was voted the Super Bowl MVP for a record-tying third time after throwing four touchdown passes in the Patriots’ defeat of the Seahawks.
The investigation found evidence McNally referred to himself as the “deflator” and was involved in a series of communications about his impact on the inflation-level of the Patriots’ game balls even though his responsibilities as a locker room attendant didn’t involve the preparation, inflation or deflation of footballs.
The report concluded that McNally, 48, violated league rules by removing the game balls from the officials’ locker room without permission of the referees, brought the footballs into a bathroom before the game -- for a period long enough to deflate them -- and received “valuable items” autographed by Brady the week before the AFC Championship Game.
Text messages and phone calls between Brady and Jastremski, 35, increased in frequency shortly after suspicions of ball tampering became public on Jan. 19, providing additional evidence of Brady’s awareness of the incident, the report said. They hadn’t been in contact by phone or text for more than six months before that, according to data retrieved from Jastremski’s cell phone.
Brady on Jan. 19 invited Jastremski to the quarterback room in Gillette Stadium for the first and only time that Jastremski can recall during his 20-year career with the Patriots, the report said. Brady also sent Jastremski text messages the report said were seemingly designed to calm the equipment assistant, including one that read “You good Jonny boy?” Jastremski, who first joined the Patriots as a ball boy in 1994, responded to Brady with a text message that read: “Still nervous; so far so good though.”
Each NFL team supplies 12 balls to the referee two hours and 15 minutes before each game. Those balls can be rubbed down and prepared by equipment managers to a starting quarterback’s specifications, but can’t be altered once approved by the referee and given to the ball attendants for each team.
The Wells report said a contrary conclusion that the Patriots’ game balls weren’t intentionally deflated requires “the acceptance of an implausible number of communications and events as benign coincidences.”
The Patriots have been previously disciplined by the NFL for intentionally violating league rules.
In 2007, the NFL fined the Patriots and Belichick a combined $750,000 and took away a first-round draft choice for videotaping teams’ signals. The illegal practices were discovered after NFL security removed a Patriots employee with a video camera from the sideline during a victory against the New York Jets. Goodell said at the time that the incident was a “calculated and deliberate attempt to avoid long-standing rules designed to encourage fair play and promote honest competition on the playing field.”