The NFL suspended Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady for the first four games of the season, fined the New England Patriots $1 million and took away two draft picks Monday as punishment for deflating footballs used in the AFC title game.
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The league also indefinitely suspended the two equipment staffers believed to have carried out the plan, including one who called himself "The Deflator."
A league-authorized investigation by attorney Ted Wells found that Brady "was at least generally aware" of plans by two Patriots employees to prepare the balls to his liking, below the league-mandated minimum of 12.5 pounds per square inch.
The Patriots defeated the Indianapolis Colts 45-7 and went on to beat the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl.
Brady will miss the season's showcase kickoff game on Sept. 10 against Pittsburgh, then Week 2 at Buffalo, a home game against Jacksonville and a game at Dallas. He will return the week the Patriots face the Colts in Indianapolis.
The Patriots lose next year's first-round pick and a fourth-round choice in 2017.
The fine matches the largest the NFL has handed out, to Ed DeBartolo Jr., then the San Francisco 49ers' owner, who pleaded guilty to a felony in his role in a Louisiana gambling scandal in 1999.
It's the second time in eight years the Patriots have been punished for violating league rules. In 2007, the team was fined $500,000 and docked a first-round draft pick, and coach Bill Belichick was fined $250,000 for videotaping opposing coaches as a way to decipher their play signals.
In his 243-page report released by the league last week, Wells found that the team broke the rules again, this time by deflating the game footballs after they had been checked by officials. Although the report did not conclusively link the four-time Super Bowl champion to the illegal activity, text messages between the equipment staffers indicated that Brady knew it was going on. Investigators said Brady's explanation for the messages was implausible.
"It is unlikely that an equipment assistant and a locker room attendant would deflate game balls without Brady's knowledge and approval," the report said.
Although Brady has issued only general statements in his defense, his agent, Don Yee, said the report omitted key facts and was "a significant and terrible disappointment."
The NFL allows each team to provide the footballs used by its offense — a procedure Brady played a role in creating — but it requires them to be inflated in that range of 12.5-13.5 pounds per square inch. Footballs with less pressure can be easier to grip and catch, and Brady has expressed a preference for the lower end of the range.
Brady said last week that the scandal hasn't taken away from the team's 28-24 Super Bowl win over Seattle — its fourth NFL title since the 2001 season.
"Absolutely not," he said at a previously planned appearance in Salem, Massachusetts, last Thursday night. "We earned everything we got and achieved as a team, and I am proud of that and so are our fans."
Fans chanted "Brady" and "MVP," then gave him a standing ovation as he entered the arena in the town made famous by the colonial witch trials. Since the airing of the scandal in the hours after the Colts game, New England fans have been unwavering in their support for the team, blaming the investigation on grudges by opponents jealous of the team's success.
(By Barry Wilner and Jimmy Golen)