Mariotti: For Deflategate, Patriots must vacate

Lance Armstrong deliberately broke the rules and was stripped of his seven Tour de France victories. A generation of prominent baseball juicers knowingly broke the rules and have been rejected for Hall of Fame induction. You cheat on Wall Street, you go to jail. You cheat in the music business, you lose millions in a lawsuit. You cheat in politics, you're run out of office.

Precedent demands, then, that the New England Patriots — whose dynasty now has been tarnished by two scandals involving a deliberate and slimy circumvention of NFL rules — should return the Vince Lombardi Trophy won in February. Their fourth Super Bowl title must be vacated at once, glaringly evident as it is that star quarterback Tom Brady was a direct participant in a football-deflation scam and paid a co-conspirator to do his dirty deeds — all to gain an illegal competitive advantage — then lied and tried to cover up his role when league investigators interviewed him.

Last time the Patriots were found to have violated NFL rules, that being the 2007 Spygate farce in which they videotaped opposing coaches as they flashed defensive signals, the organization escaped with $750,000 in fines and a forfeited 31st draft pick in the first round, a slap on the wrist in a multibillion-dollar industry. When the league announces penalties for Deflategate in coming days, Commissioner Roger Goodell must protect the sport's integrity and issue a robust punishment that sticks for the ages. So be it if Goodell loses the support of Patriots owner Bob Kraft, who said he won't fight the decision even when “the time, effort and resources expended to reach this conclusion are incomprehensible to me.” So be it if an embattled Goodell, who was backed publicly by Kraft during his bungling of the Ray Rice debacle and has counted Kraft as his foremost ally amid his messy tenure, finds himself as an ex-commissioner before long. The record book should read thusly:

Super Bowl XLIX — Championship vacated.

Or, Super Bowl LIE.

Perhaps fearing legal action and Kraft's wrath, the league carefully concluded “it is more probable than not” that team personnel deliberately deflated game balls and that Brady “was at least generally aware” of the scheme. Let's just call this what it is: Brady was caught in the act, apparently on multiple occasions, of having two team flunkies surreptitiously deflate footballs to give him a firmer grip and a better chance of excelling as one of the sport's greatest all-time passers, as detailed in a 243-page report by league-appointed attorney Ted Wells.

And much as it stunned the American public to discover that the once-beloved Armstrong masterminded a massive doping program, the ball-tampering demise of Brady — San Mateo's own, pride of Serra High School — is jolting in its own way. Here was the ultimate overachiever and sports fairy tale. Picked 199th in the 2000 draft, he rose to match boyhood idol Joe Montana with four Super Bowl titles and recently moved past Peyton Manning to earn general acceptance as the best quarterback of his era. He has the supermodel wife, the family, the good looks, the image as The Guy Every Other Guy Wants To Be. The other night, I looked up from my ringside seat at the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight (also a sham, it turns out) to see Brady entering the MGM Grand Garden Arena, only hours after he attended the Kentucky Derby with buddies on a boys' weekend out.

Today, no one wants to be Brady.

Why, when blessed with so many natural gifts and self-made achievements, must he stoop to a calculated con job?

If you still believe that deflating a football below the league minimum (12.5 pounds per square inch) is an overblown story, consider that Brady benefited from violating the rules just as Armstrong, Alex Rodriguez and the other cheats did. The difference: Whereas the juicers inflated their bodies for an edge, Brady shrunk the football so it would feel better in his hand. Either way, he was participating in a flimflam game that required deception and the help of others. Upon reading a series of text messages between Patriots equipment assistant John Jastremski and officials' locker room attendant Jim McNally, a longtime Patriots employee, it's clear that Brady agreed to compensate McNally — who describes himself in the texts as “the deflator” — with signed footballs and athletic shoes while Jastremski was agreeing to supply McNally with the “needle” used to deflate balls.

The texts, which go back as early as last May and extend into October and then January, are the smoking gun that suggest the ball-deflation tactics have been in place for some time. In a May 9 exchange, McNally was referring to himself as “the deflator” and hinted he might take to the story to the media. He was demanding shoes and autographed footballs for his deflation skills.

McNally: “You working”

Jastremski: “Yep”

McNally: “jimmy needs some kicks….lets make a deal…..come on help the deflator”

McNally: “Chill buddy i'm just [bleeping] with you … im not going to espn … . yet”

The story exploded on the night of the AFC title game, when Indianapolis Colts general manager Ryan Grigson, whose team was in Foxborough, Mass., to play the Patriots and would lose 45-7, alerted the league of a possible issue involving the pressure levels of the Patriots' 11 game balls. Referee Walt Anderson checked the balls before the game and determined that all but two were properly inflated. But when Anderson and his crew left their locker room to take the field, Anderson angrily wondered why the same game balls couldn't be located, according to Wells' report. That's because McNally — again, the attendant for the officials' locker room — had removed the balls from that room and taken them to a bathroom, where he “locked the door and remained in the bathroom with the game balls for approximately one minute and forty seconds.” The timeline was based in part on a security camera in a Gillette Stadium hallway that captured McNally slipping into the bathroom with his needle and game balls. Could McNally do his handy work in 100 seconds?

Absolutely. He was an expert ball-shrinker, after all. Rewind to Oct. 17, when Brady was upset about air pressure after a 27-25 win over the New York Jets. A text exchange at the time between McNally and Jastremski indicated Brady was aware of their hanky-panky. It also was apparent McNally isn't a big fan of Brady, which is odd, given Brady's godlike status within the Patriots' realm.

McNally: “Tom sucks…im going make that next ball a [bleeping] balloon”

Jastremski: “Talked to him last night. He actually brought you up and said you must have a lot of stress trying to get them done”

Jastremski: “I told him it was. He was right though”

Jastremski: “I checked some of the balls this morn… The refs [bleeped] us… a few of then were at almost 16 [psi]”

Jastremski: “They didnt recheck then after they put air in them”

McNally: “[Bleeping] tom …16 is nothing… wait till next sunday”

Jastremski: “Omg! Spaz”

The following week, before a game against Chicago, there was another exchange.

Jastremski: “I have a big needle for u this week”

McNally: “Better be surrounded by cash and newkicks….or its a rugby sunday”

McNally: “[Bleep] tom”

Jastremski: “Maybe u will have some nice size 11s in ur locker”

McNally: “Tom must really be working your balls hard this week”

Then there was this exchange on Jan. 7, 11 days before the AFC title game.

McNally: “Remember to put a couple sweet pig skins ready for tom to sign”

Jastremski: “U got it kid…big autograph day for you”

McNally: “Nice throw some kicks in and make it real special”

When news of the investigation went public Jan. 19, Brady grew nervous, according to the Wells report. He and Jastremski hadn't communicated by phone or text message for more than six months, but over a three-day period, they spoke by phone at least six times for a collective 55 minutes. Brady invited Jastremski to the Patriots' quarterbacks room — a first-ever occurrence — and sent reassuring texts:

Brady: “You good Jonny boy?”

Jastremski: “Still nervous”

And yet, through it all, Brady denied any involvement or wrongdoing — first on a Boston radio station, then at a news conference, then to NFL investigators. He refused to submit texts when asked by the Wells group and claimed not to know McNally. Jastremski's phone records told a much different story.

Brady hasn't responded yet to the findings. His father did, with Tom Brady Sr. referring to the investigation as “Framegate” and telling USA Today, “The league had to cover themselves. The reality is they had no conclusive evidence.”

No conclusive evidence?

What's bothersome is that Goodell is leaving the matter to Troy Vincent, the league's executive vice president of football operations. “As with other recent matters involving violations of competitive rules, [Vincent] and his team will consider what steps to take in light of this report,” Goodell said in a statement. “At the same time, we will continue our efforts vigorously to protect the integrity of the game and promote fair play at all times.”

The only way to accomplish that is by throwing down the hammer. First Spygate, now Deflategate. First Belichick, now Brady.


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