- The NFL has suspended New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for four games for his role in the team's "Deflategate" scandal. The team has also been stripped of two draft picks and fined $1 million.
- The league did this because of its investigation found that team locker room attendant Jim McNally likely released air from a set of game balls used during the AFC Championship this past December.
- The investigation concluded that quarterback Tom Brady was likely "at least generally aware" of McNally's activities. There's no evidence coach Bill Belichick knew what was going on.
- Under-inflated balls are easier to catch and throw, and each team uses its own set of balls — so the Patriots' opponent wouldn't have enjoyed the same advantage.
- Tom Brady is appealing his suspension. Though the Patriots published an incredibly thorough rebuttal of the NFL's investigation, they've declined to appeal the team penalties.
After an NFL investigation found that members of the Patriots' locker room staff likely deflated their footballs on purpose — and that Tom Brady probably knew about it — the league has handed down a surprisingly harsh penalty. Brady will miss the first four games of the season, the Patriots will be fined $1 million, and the team will also lose two draft picks in upcoming years.
The investigation found that 11 of the 12 footballs used by the New England Patriots during the first half of the AFC Championship had less than the minimum air pressure mandated by the league. A referee had confirmed before the game that the balls were fully inflated — but sometime afterward, but before kickoff, Patriots locker room attendant Jim McNally took the balls into the bathroom and likely released air from them, perhaps acting on Brady's orders.
Why might the Patriots want under-inflated footballs? In theory, they'd be easier for Brady to grip and for the team's running backs and receivers to catch and hold on to during the game's rainy conditions. Because teams always use their own sets of footballs when they're on offense, this wouldn't have helped their opponents, the Indianapolis Colts.
The penalty for is far steeper than many expected, and the Patriots have responded in kind, publishing a thorough, point-by-point rebuttal to the NFL's investigation, even calling upon a Nobel-winning scientist to argue that the balls could have been deflated naturally by temperature changed. However, they've decided not to appeal their penalties, though Tom Brady is appealing his suspension, and it could well be reduced by a few games.
Regardless, the biggest impact of "Deflategate" might actually be long-term. Given previous instances of cheating by the Patriots, it could tarnish their legacy in the future.
What did the Patriots do?
In their win on Sunday, January 18 against the Indianapolis Colts — a game that allowed them to advance to the Super Bowl — the Patriots played part of the game with balls that were illegally under-inflated.
Normally, for each game, each team prepares a set of 12 balls for it to use on offense, and they're checked by officials beforehand. The NFL has confirmed the Patriots' balls were properly inflated before the game. But after catching an interception during the second quarter, Colts linebacker D'Qwell Jackson noticed the ball felt less inflated than usual.
During halftime, officials checked the other 11 balls the Patriots and found they were all indeed under-inflated — with anywhere between one and two pounds per square inch less pressure than the minimum 12.5 psi mandated by the league. At that point, they were re-inflated to the proper pressure and stayed that way for the second half.
So what happened before the game? Patriots coach Bill Belichick had previously claimed that merely taking the balls from a warm room to the cold outdoors could account for the pressure drop. But the investigation uncovered video of a part-time Patriots staff member named Jim McNally taking the balls away from the officials before getting permission (a breach of protocol) and bringing them into a bathroom before the game for a little under two minutes.
We don't know for sure what went on in there. But in the previous months, McNally exchanged many texts messages with team equipment assistant John Jastremski that look extremely suspicious. According to the report,
In a number of those text messages, McNally and Jastremski discussed the air pressure of Patriots game balls, Tom Brady‟s unhappiness with the inflation level of Patriots game balls, Jastremski‟s plan to provide McNally with a "needle" for use by McNally, and McNally‟s requests for "cash" and sneakers together with the "needle" to be provided by Jastremski.
In other messages, McNally calls himself "the deflator" and makes requests for autographed game balls and jerseys, which were given to him by Brady after games. In one text, McNally appears to be angry at Brady, and says, "The only thing deflating sun..is his passing rating."
Meanwhile, in the week following the AFC Championship, Brady began frequently texting and calling Jastremski, seemingly try to re-assure him after suspicions arose. Brady has denied involvement, but refused to turn over his text messages and emails to investigators. It all adds up to look a lot like McNally and Jastremski intentionally deflated the balls before the AFC Championship, and that Brady was quite aware of it.
How did the NFL respond?
This was enough for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Executive President Troy Vincent to decide Brady and the Patriots deserved to be punished pretty harshly.
The league handed down a four-game suspension for Brady — the same punishment given to players who test positive for steroids for the first time — and fined the Patriots $1 million. It also stripped the team of a first-round draft pick in next year's draft (the same penalty given to the team when it was caught illegally filming another team's coaching staff on the sidelines a few years ago), as well as a fourth-rounder the year after that.
All this came despite the fact that, by the NFL's own admission, it had no direct evidence that anyone besides McNally and Jastremski did anything wrong. Brady was punished for his likely role in the scheme, as well as his refusal to cooperate with the investigators, and the team as a whole was punished because the league holds it responsible for the actions of its employees.
Why would the Patriots want to under-inflate footballs?
The basic idea is that softer, less fully-inflated footballs are easier to hold and catch.
Given that the game was played in slick, rainy conditions — and that different footballs are used by each team (more on that below) — this could provide a slight advantage to the Patriots offense. It might help Tom Brady throw the ball, and could also help running backs and receivers hold on to it more tightly when tackled. Teams use their own sets of balls whenever they're on offense, so it wouldn't have benefitted the Colts.
It might not make a huge difference, but materials scientists and players confirm that letting a bit of air out could make the balls somewhat easier to hold, especially for the quarterback.
Could under-inflating the balls have let the Patriots win the game?
Almost certainly not. The Patriots beat the Colts 45 to 7 — an especially dominant win, even for the Patriots.
Further, they scored mostly by running the ball, an area where under-inflated balls wouldn't make much of a difference. And the balls were reportedly re-inflated to the proper pressure for the second half, when the Patriots still beat the Colts by a score of 28 to 0.
People aren't upset because the Patriots may have won this game by under-inflating their balls. They're upset because the Patriots have been remarkably dominant for 15 years — but during that time, have consistently pushed the envelope in terms of rules, and on at least one other occasion, have been caught cheating.
If the team habitually under-inflates its game balls, it could provide a very real advantage — something that may have, in some cases, been the difference between a loss and a win.
There's no direct evidence that McNally deflated the balls before other games, but the text messages suggest he may have been doing so the entire 2014 season. This which might explain why during a regular season game this past November, Colts players were suspicious that the Patriots were using under-inflated balls — and why the team emailed the league before the AFC Championship, asking them to look into the matter.
Is this the first time the Patriots have been accused of cheating?
In 2007, the team was caught illegally filming the New York Jets coaching staff. Having tape of the coaches' hand signals — and being able to match them up with the actual plays run on the field — could provide a big advantage, essentially allowing Belichick and the Patriots' staff to decode opponents' signaling systems. Belichick later admitted that he'd been taping opposing coaching staffs ever since becoming a head coach in 2000, and thought it was permitted by league rules.
It wasn't, and in response, the NFL fined Belichick $500,000, fined the team $250,000, and stripped the team of its first round draft pick. Around the same time, allegations surfaced that Belichick had also filmed a St. Louis Rams practice right before beating them in Super Bowl XXXVI, but he denied it.
There have also been all other sorts of unproven allegations of cheating by the Patriots. And even when he's playing within the rules, Belichick — smartly — likes to push the envelope in ways that aren't part of conventional football practice. In the same game against the Ravens, he used unusual formations on several plays, for instance, and Ravens coach John Harbaugh complained that his team didn't have enough time to match up, as mandated by league rules.
For many fans, all this raises a question: what else have Belichick and the Patriots gotten away with?
Is there a name for this scandal?
Alas. Yes. People have been calling it Deflate-gate, the latest in a string of hundreds of scandals with the "gate" suffix tacked on, in an allusion to Watergate.
It'd be great if we could figure out a more creative way to name our scandals, though, and some people came up with the more imaginative "Ballghazi," but it never quite caught on.
What's going to happen next?
Brady will appeal the suspension, and could well have it reduced to two games — something that commonly occurs whenever NFL players are suspended. And even if he misses the full four games, it may not ruin the defending champions' season. The team has said it will not appeal the fine or lost draft picks.
But regardless, what's probably the biggest consequence of all this is that the scandal could tarnish the Patriots' long-term legacy.
The team's Super Bowl win this year cemented Belichick and Brady's legacy as one of the best coach-quarterback pairings of all time — they're one of two duos to ever win four Super Bowls. But the team has now been punished for cheating on two separate instances during this remarkable run. It's tough to say right now, but it could change perceptions of the Patriots dynasty in the future.
WATCH: The Patriots were caught cheating. Again. Here's everything you need to know
Update: This story has been edited to reflect ongoing developments.