By Steve Ginsburg
(Reuters) - The National Football League came down hard on the New England Patriots on Monday for their role in Deflategate, suspending star quarterback Tom Brady for the first four games of next season and fining the franchise $1 million.
The NFL also said the Patriots will 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.
Brady's agent and Patriots owner Robert Kraft both sharply criticized the punishment, prolonging a turbulent season for the most-profitable U.S. sports league, which has already had to deal with scandals involving domestic violence and child abuse.
"The discipline is ridiculous and has no legitimate basis," said Brady's agent Don Yee, adding that the quarterback will appeal the suspension.
Ted Wells, an attorney hired by the NFL to investigate the allegations, said in a 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.
An underinflated football would likely give Brady a better grip and allow him to throw longer and with more accuracy, especially in the chilly and wet conditions the Colts and Patriots played in to determine who would go to the Super Bowl.
The $1 million fine ties the largest ever for a team in the NFL, equaling the amount the league ordered San Francisco 49ers owner Edward Debartolo, Jr. to pay in 1999 after he pleaded guilty to a felony for his role in a Louisiana gambling scandal.
In a statement, Kraft, considered one of the league's most-powerful owners and an ally of Commissioner Roger Goodell, expressed his "disappointment in how this one-sided investigation was handled" and said Brady, who has led the Patriots to four championships, "has our unconditional support."
"Despite our conviction that there was no tampering with footballs, it was our intention to accept any discipline levied by the league," Kraft 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."
Brady has a guaranteed base salary of $8 million for the 16-game 2015 NFL season. If the four-game suspension with no pay is upheld, Brady will miss games against Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Jacksonville and Dallas. Ironically, his first game back on Oct. 18 would be against the Colts.
Vincent, the NFL's vice president of football operations who handed down the sanctions, said he was influenced by the Patriots' 2007 Spygate scandal and the lack of cooperation by Brady and the Patriots.
"We relied on the critical importance of protecting the integrity of the game and the thoroughness and independence of the Wells report," Goodell said in a statement.
While the fine is large by NFL standards, it won't dent the bottom line of a team that was valued by Forbes at $2.6 billion in 2014.
"The $1 million is in many respects a slap on the wrist, that's lunch money during the football season," said Daniel Durbin, director of the Institute of Sports, Media and Society at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
"The larger issue is taking away their quarterback for four games, that has some impact on revenue because one of their star players is gone."
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.
"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.
The punishment was a rare loss for Brady, who has played 15 years in the NFL after coming out of the University of Michigan as an unheralded sixth-round draft choice. He has won four Super Bowls in six tries with the Patriots, and was chosen the most valuable player in three of the victories. He has denied playing any role in deflating the footballs.
Reaction to the sanctions was quick -- and mixed.
"They had no definitive proof against Tom Brady or #patriots," tweeted real estate mogul Donald Trump. "If Hillary doesn't have to produce Emails, why should Tom? Very unfair!"
Arizona Cardinals linebacker Sean Weatherspoon tweeted: "I think the suspension is warranted, they came down hard on the organization though. #Deflategate"
Brady, 37, 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.
"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."
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who was not implicated in the deflated football scandal, 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.
The "Deflategate" issue has been another headache for Goodell, who came under fire last year for his lenient stance on domestic abuse, which caused him to re-vamp the league's personal conduct policy and strengthen the penalties against players who commit such crimes.
While Goodell was being heavily criticized for his light punishments on domestic violence, Kraft was his staunchest defender, leading many to speculate league would go easy on a star player who is considered one of the greatest of his generation.
"It's a good thing the @nfl suspended Tom Brady now everyone knows that NOBODY is above the system #NFL #FairGame," tweeted Shawne Merriman, a retired former three-time Pro Bowl linebacker.
(Reporting by Paul Thomasch and Steve Ginsburg; Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Mary Milliken and Alan Crosby)