The NFL’s lengthy investigation of the “DeflateGate” allegations against the New England Patriots concluded the team probably violated league rules deliberately by using under-inflated footballs during the AFC title game and that quarterback Tom Brady probably was aware of those activities.
The league did not immediately announce any disciplinary actions against the Patriots, who beat the Indianapolis Colts in that AFC championship game and went on to capture their fourth Super Bowl title under Brady and Coach Bill Belichick with a victory over the Seattle Seahawks.
Attorney Ted Wells took more than 100 days to investigate the matter and wrote in his report, released Wednesday by the NFL, that it is “more probable than not” that the Patriots violated league rules. Wells cited actions by John Jastremski, a Patriots’ equipment assistant, and Jim McNally, the team’s employee in charge of delivering the footballs used on offense by the Patriots to the game officials.
“Based on the evidence developed in connection with the investigation and summarized in this Report, we have concluded that it is more probable than not that New England Patriots personnel participated in violations of the NFL Playing Rules and were involved in a deliberate attempt to circumvent those rules,” Wells wrote.
“In particular, we conclude that it is more probable than not that Jim McNally and John Jastremski participated in a deliberate plan to circumvent the rules by releasing air from Patriots game balls after the examination of the footballs by NFL game officials at the AFC Championship Game.”
McNally, in a text message to Jastresmski in May 2014, referred to himself as “the deflator,” according to the report.
The report is the culmination of a highly unusual situation in which the NFL, for the second time in eight years, investigated whether one of its most successful and highest-profile teams circumvented rules to gain a competitive advantage. In 2007, the league found the Patriots improperly videotaped opposing coaching signals. These most recent accusations dominated discussion in the two weeks leading up to February’s Super Bowl, even as the Patriots and Brady were pursuing their fourth league championship.
Wells wrote that investigators concluded “it is more probable than not that Tom Brady was at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities of McNally and Jastremski involving the release of air from Patriots game balls.”
The investigation’s conclusions about Brady threaten to taint his legacy as one of the sport’s greatest quarterbacks and most improbable success stories, going from sixth-round draft choice to four-time Super Bowl winner. That threat could be intensified if Brady is punished by the league.
Investigators do not believe there was wrongdoing on the part of Belichick, any of his assistant coaches or the team’s ownership, Wells wrote.
Goodell said the league will continue to consider what steps to take next.
“As with other recent matters involving violations of competitive rules, Troy Vincent [the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations] and his team will consider what steps to take in light of the report, both with respect to possible disciplinary action and to any changes in protocols that are necessary to avoid future incidents of this type,” Goodell said in a written statement released by the league. “At the same time, we will continue our efforts vigorously to protect the integrity of the game and promote fair play at all times.”
Patriots owner Robert Kraft called the investigation and its findings “incomprehensible.”
Kraft said in a written statement he was “convinced” that Wells’ investigation “would find the same factual evidence supported by both scientific formula and independent research as we did and would ultimately exonerate the Patriots.” Kraft said that 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.”
Kraft also said the Patriots would accept the findings of the report and any discipline dispensed by the league, but noted, “the time, effort and resources expended to reach this conclusion are incomprehensible to me.”
Any penalties against the Patriots could include a fine and the loss of one or more draft picks. Goodell fined Belichick and the Patriots a total of $750,000 in 2007 and stripped the team of a first-round draft choice in the “Spygate” scandal in which the Patriots were found to have improperly videotaped opposing coaching signals.
One person familiar with the league’s inner workings said decisions regarding potential discipline are “coming soon.” Possible discipline of Brady, as well as a fine and prospective loss of a draft choice by the Patriots, are “all under consideration,” according to that person, who requested anonymity because no official announcements had been made.
In a 2008 memo to the league’s competition committee, Goodell vowed tougher penalties for future violations of the sport’s competitive rules.
“Too often, competitive violations have gone unpunished because conclusive proof of the violation was lacking,” Goodell wrote in that memo. “I believe we should reconsider the standard of proof to be applied in such cases, and make it easier for a competitive violation to be established. And where a violation is shown, I intend to impose more stringent penalties on both the club and the responsible individual(s).”
This year, the league fined the Atlanta Falcons $350,000 and stripped them of a fifth-round draft selection in 2016 for using fake crowd noise during home games. The NFL suspended Falcons President Rich McKay from the league’s competition committee even after concluding that McKay was not aware of the use of artificial crowd noise. The league announced it would have suspended the employee responsible for the infraction for eight games if he still had been with the franchise.
The league fined the Cleveland Browns $250,000 and suspended their general manager, Ray Farmer, for the first four games of the 2015 season for improper in-game texting. The Browns did not lose a draft pick.
The Patriots’ latest scandal intensified the public debate as to whether the team’s accomplishments have been tarnished. Detractors have called them cheaters. Supporters of the team counter that such feelings result from jealousy over the franchise’s on-field success.
Kraft was staunchly supportive of Belichick and Brady during the controversy. He said after the team traveled to the Super Bowl that his coach and quarterback were owed an apology if they were cleared of wrongdoing.
Kraft continued to say Wednesday that the under-inflation of the Patriots’ footballs resulted from environmental factors.
“What is not highlighted in the text of the report is that three of the Colts’ four footballs measured by at least one official were under the required psi level,” Kraft said. “As far as we are aware, there is no comparable data available from any other game because, in the history of the NFL, psi levels of footballs have never been measured at halftime, in any climate. If they had been, based on what we now know, it is safe to assume that every cold-weather game was played with under inflated footballs. As compelling a case as the Wells Report may try to make, I am going to rely on the factual evidence of numerous scientists and engineers rather than inferences from circumstantial evidence.”
Goodell said two days before the Super Bowl: “We want the truth. That’s what I think our fans want. That’s what our clubs want. And so what we want to do is make sure that we find that truth. If there are violations of the rules, we take them seriously, particularly when they deal with the integrity of the game and the rules.”
NFL officials already have mentioned a possible future procedural change by which the footballs, once they’re approved by the game officials prior to kickoff, would not be put back in possession of a team employee. Under current rules, each team supplies the footballs that it uses while on offense during a game. The footballs are inspected by the officials before the game and then given back to a team-appointed attendant.
Wells previously investigated the locker-room bullying allegations involving Miami Dolphins players for the NFL. In this case, his report totaled 243 pages, including appendices.