New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was suspended four games by the National Football League for his involvement in the deflated-ball controversy that overshadowed the two week run-up to the team’s fourth Super Bowl title.
The Patriots were fined $1 million and stripped of two draft picks, including a first-round selection in 2016. Brady will appeal the suspension, which is “ridiculous and has no legitimate basis,” the player’s agent, Don Yee, said in an e-mailed statement. Patriots owner Robert Kraft criticized what he called the NFL’s “one-sided investigation,” and said in a team news release that Brady “has our unconditional support.”
Brady’s ban -- for conduct detrimental to the integrity of the NFL -- comes five days after investigators commissioned by the league said the two-time Most Valuable Player probably was “at least generally aware” that two Patriots staffers deflated game balls to below the league’s minimum air pressure before the conference championship game.
The report, issued May 6, said Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Kraft were unaware that game balls supplied and used by New England during the first half of the American Football Conference title game on Jan. 18 had been tampered with after being approved by NFL officials.
“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,” NFL Vice President of Football Operations Troy Vincent said in a letter to Brady.
The suspension could make Brady the first starting quarterback from a reigning Super Bowl-winning team to miss the ensuing season-opening game since 2006, when Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers had an emergency appendectomy.
Brady, who is married to supermodel Gisele Bundchen and is one of the most high-profile players in the most popular U.S. sport, can appeal the discipline through the NFL Players Association.
“We reached these decisions after extensive discussion with Troy Vincent and many others,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “We relied on the critical importance of protecting the integrity of the game and the thoroughness and independence of the Wells report.”
If Brady is unsuccessful with his appeal, he will miss the opening game of the regular season, a Thursday night meeting with the Steelers on Sept. 10 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Brady could also sit out games against the Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars and Dallas Cowboys.
“The NFL has a well-documented history of making poor disciplinary decisions that often are overturned when truly independent and neutral judges or arbitrators preside,” Brady’s agent, Yee, said. “We will appeal, and 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.”
A three-month investigation headed by New York attorney Ted Wells concluded it was “more probable than not” that Jim McNally, an officials’ locker room attendant for New England, and John Jastremski, an equipment assistant, released air from game balls after they’d been examined by officials before a 45-7 rout over the Indianapolis Colts that sent the Patriots to the Super Bowl.
Based on interviews and evidence, the report said it was unlikely that the two staffers “would personally and unilaterally engage in such conduct in the absence of Brady’s awareness and consent.”
Brady, who was selected the Super Bowl MVP for a third time after throwing four touchdown passes in a 28-24 win against the Seattle Seahawks, has maintained that he doesn’t have an explanation for the under-inflated footballs.
Kraft said last week that the Wells report didn’t include any hard evidence and the team was disappointed in its findings. Even so, the team owner said the Patriots would accept any discipline handed down by the league. But he said Monday that the league’s sanctions were too strong.
“Despite our conviction that there was no tampering with footballs, it was our intention to accept any discipline levied by the league,” he said in a statement. “Today’s punishment, however, far exceeded any reasonable expectation. It was based completely on circumstantial rather than hard or conclusive evidence.”
The NFL said the Patriots were fined for a violation of the league’s playing rules and the “failure to cooperate in the subsequent investigation.”
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.”
While the Wells report said Belichick, Kraft and other Patriots players had no knowledge of the deliberate deflating, the team was stripped of its 2016 first-round pick and a fourth-round selection in 2017.
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 NFL said Kraft advised Goodell last week that both Jastremski and McNally have been indefinitely suspended without pay. Neither can be reinstated without Vincent’s approval.
“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,” Vincent said.
The New England probe began in January after several footballs supplied by the Patriots were found to be below the league’s required 12.5 to 13.5 pounds per-square-inch range. Balls inflated less may be easier for a quarterback to throw and receivers to catch, particularly in wet or cold conditions. Brady has said he prefers game balls that are inflated to the lowest end of the permissible range, saying it’s the “perfect grip for the football.”
The Wells report included text messages in which 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 for 1 minute, 40 seconds before the AFC title game -- a period long enough to deflate them -- and received “valuable items” autographed by Brady. The 35-year-old Jastremski, who started working for the Patriots in 1994 as a ball boy, supplied McNally with a needle to deflate the footballs, investigators said.
Text messages and phone calls between Brady and Jastremski 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. The two 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 could 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 responded with: “Still nervous; so far so good though.”
The penalties imposed on Brady and the Patriots still may not satisfy those who feel the franchise has taken liberties with the NFL rulebook while winning four Super Bowl titles in the past 12 years.
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.”
Vincent said in a letter to the Patriots that the team’s prior record was one of several factors considered when assessing discipline. The NFL also considered the cooperation by the team and “relevant individuals” with the investigation, citing a failure to make McNally available for an additional interview and Brady’s refusal to share e-mails and text messages.
“Although we do not hold the club directly responsible for Mr. Brady’s refusal to cooperate,” Vincent said, “it remains significant that the quarterback of the team failed to cooperate fully with the investigation.”