NEW YORK - Tom Brady was suspended for four games and the New England Patriots were fined US$1 million (S$1.3 million) on Monday, as the National Football League (NFL) came down hard on its marquee player and its Super Bowl champions over the "Deflategate" scandal.
The NFL not only suspended the two-time NFL most valuable player without pay, but also stripped the Patriots of both the first-round draft pick for next year and the 2017 fourth-round draft pick for deflating footballs in a key American Football Conference (AFC) play-off contest.
The idea is that a deflated and thus softer football is easier for a quarterback to handle and pass.
"There is substantial and credible evidence to conclude that you were at least generally aware of the actions of the Patriots' employees involved in the deflation of the footballs and that it was unlikely that their actions were done without your knowledge," NFL executive vice-president Troy Vincent said of Brady.
The Patriots' chairman and chief executive Robert Kraft called the investigation "one-sided" and said the punishment did not fit the crime.
"Despite our conviction that there was no tampering with footballs, it was our intention to accept any discipline levied by the league. Today's punishment, however, far exceeded any reasonable expectation," said Kraft. "It was based on circumstantial rather than hard or conclusive evidence."
The 37-year-old Brady will miss the Patriots' first four games of this year's regular season, meaning that if the suspension is not shortened, he will return to the field against his accusers in week six when the Patriots face the Indianapolis Colts.
The punishment was announced five days after the release of the Wells report, which discovered that it was "more probable than not" that two Patriots employees had conspired to deflate balls in the team's AFC Championship game against the Colts, which they won 45-7.
That probe also found that Brady - who went on to lead the Patriots to a Super Bowl victory over the Seattle Seahawks - was "at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities" of the two employees, locker room attendant Jim McNally and equipment assistant John Jastremski.
Brady's agent, Don Yee, also slammed the suspension on Monday, describing it as "ridiculous".
"The discipline is ridiculous and has no legitimate basis," Yee said. "This outcome was pre-determined."
He said four-time Super Bowl winner Brady would exercise his right to launch an appeal to commissioner Roger Goodell within three days.
The fine equals the largest ever dished out by the NFL back when it went after San Francisco 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr, after he pleaded guilty for his role in a Louisiana gambling fiasco in 1999.
The league came down hard on the Patriots but singled out Brady for specific punishment, saying he not only tarnished the league's image but refused to co-operate with investigators.
It said Brady - arguably the biggest star in American football - declined to turn over his mobile phone, text messages and e-mail to help with the probe, "despite being offered extraordinary safeguards by the investigators to protect unrelated personal information".