The National Football League lowered the hammer on the New England Patriots on Monday for their role in Deflategate, suspending star quarterback Tom Brady for the first four games next season and fining the franchise $1 million.
The NFL also said the Patriots will also forfeit their first-round selection in the 2016 draft and a fourth-round pick in 2017 for using under-inflated footballs in last season's AFC Championship game.
Ted Wells, an attorney hired by the NFL to investigate the allegations, said in his 243-page report that it was "more probable than not" that Patriots personnel "were involved in a deliberate effort" to circumvent rules by using deflated footballs in the team's 45-7 win over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship game.
"We reached these decisions after extensive discussion with Troy Vincent and many others," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. Vincent is the NFL's vice president of football operations.
"We relied on the critical importance of protecting the integrity of the game and the thoroughness and independence of the Wells report," it added.
The victory in the Jan. 18 game propelled the Patriots into the Super Bowl, which they won over the Seattle Seahawks 28-24, clinched by a dramatic interception in the waning seconds.
While the $1 million fine is one of the largest ever doled out by the league, it won't dent the bottom line of a team that was valued by Forbes at $2.6 billion in 2014.
Although there was no smoking gun, the Wells report, which took nearly four months to complete, found Brady and two members of the Patriots' equipment staff were all likely culpable.
"In this case, the footballs were intentionally deflated in an effort to provide a competitive advantage to Tom Brady after having been certified by the game officials as being in compliance with the playing rules," Vincent said in a letter to the Patriots concerning the punishment.
The team told Goodell last week that Patriots employees John Jastremski and James McNally, who were linked to the scandal, have been indefinitely suspended without pay by the club, the NFL said.
Brady, who has played 15 years in the NFL after coming out of the University of Michigan as an unheralded sixth-round draft choice, has said he played no role in deflating the footballs.
The 38-year-old quarterback, who is married to Brazilian fashion model Gisele Bündchen, refused to turn over his cell phone and other personal information for the investigation, Wells said in the report.
An underinflated football would likely give Brady a better grip and allow him to throw longer and with more accuracy, especially in chilly conditions like in the AFC title game.
"I think it's absolutely right and proper if he's been complicit in some kind of wrongdoing," said Jamie Johnson, 34, a graduate student from London at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government outside Boston.
"It doesn't matter who he is, what kind of player he is, or what he's accomplished."
The Patriots have been caught trying to gain an edge before and Vincent said that was a factor in the punishment handed down on Monday.
Coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 in 2007 for illegally videotaping defensive signals from New York Jets coaches in what was dubbed "Spygate." The Patriots were also fined $250,000 and forfeited a first-round draft pick.
While Goodell was being heavily criticised last year for his light punishments on domestic violence, Patriots owner Robert Kraft was his staunchest defender, leading many to speculate how the NFL front office would punish the star player on the Patriots.