Tom Brady has been an NFL golden boy, with movie-star looks, a supermodel wife, four Super Bowl championship rings, and a regular-guy-makes-good back story. He went from being a sixth-round draft pick to one of the greatest quarterbacks in league history.
But even a golden boy has to play by the rules.
The NFL delivered that message in a resounding way Monday, suspending the New England Patriots star without pay for the first four games of next season for "conduct detrimental to the integrity of the NFL."
The punishment comes days after the league announced results of an investigation that found Brady was "likely generally aware" that equipment assistants employed by the team had conspired to deflate the Patriots' footballs for last season's AFC championship game, making the balls easier to throw and catch.
The Patriots also were fined $1 million — matching the league record — and stripped of their first-round draft pick next year and a fourth-round selection in 2017. John Jastremski and Jim McNally, the equipment staffers, were suspended indefinitely. McNally had referred to himself as "the deflator" in text messages, according to investigators.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said he issued the penalties based on "the critical importance of protecting the integrity of the game."
Unless Brady's suspension is reduced on appeal, he will not be eligible to return until an Oct. 18 Sunday night game at Indianapolis, the team that blew the whistle on the Patriots in the AFC title game.
Brady's agent, Don Yee, called the Wells report "an incredibly frail exercise in fact-finding and logic" and said the quarterback would appeal.
Team owner Robert Kraft released a statement saying that the Patriots had intended to accept whatever discipline was imposed by the league, but that the punishment "far exceeded any reasonable expectation" and "was based completely on circumstantial rather than hard or conclusive evidence."
Kraft called the investigation "one-sided" and complained that scientific evidence that cold weather accounted for the deflation had been dismissed. "Tom Brady has our unconditional support. Our belief in him has not wavered," Kraft added.
Brady's suspension is twice as long as what was originally imposed last year on Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who struck and knocked unconscious his then-fiancee in a casino elevator. When video surfaced from inside the elevator, Rice was suspended indefinitely.
Reaction to the penalties for what has been dubbed "Deflategate" was mixed.
"It's a good thing the @nfl suspended Tom Brady now everyone knows that NOBODY is above the system," former NFL linebacker Shawne Merriman wrote on Twitter, concluding with the hashtag #FairGame.
Former NFL tight end Jake Ballard thought differently: "4 games?? What a joke!" he wrote. "Tom Brady's getting the same suspension as PED users... Crime does not match the punishment. #lostmorerespectfortheNFL"
In his 243-page report released by the NFL last week, attorney Ted Wells concluded it was "more probable than not" that a Patriots equipment assistant deflated the team's footballs before the Colts game, and that Brady was at least generally aware that the footballs were being prepared to his liking.
The Colts alerted the NFL to their suspicions and the footballs were tested at halftime, with the vast majority of them registering under the league minimum of 12.5 pounds per square inch. The Patriots have argued that cold weather accounted for the deflation.
The Patriots won that game, 45-7, and two weeks later defeated the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl.
The Patriots have been accused of cheating in the past, and in 2007 were caught breaking league rules by videotaping the sideline hand signals of New York Jets coaches. That incident, nicknamed Spygate, cost New England Coach Bill Belichick $500,000, and the league docked the Patriots a first-round draft pick.
Goodell has imposed significant penalties on prominent players and coaches before. In 2007, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was suspended indefinitely for his role in a dog fighting ring; he didn't return to the league until 2009, after a 17-month prison sentence.
New Orleans Coach Sean Payton, whose team won the Super Bowl in February 2010, was suspended for the entire 2012 season after the league determined the Saints had in place a bounty system that paid players for inflicting injuries.
The $1-million fine imposed on the Patriots matches that assessed to San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo in 1999 for his role in a failed Louisiana riverboat gambling scheme.
However, not all NFL rule breaking results in substantial penalty. Last season, during a 12-degree game in Minneapolis, Vikings sideline assistants were captured on camera using heaters to warm the footballs, which is against the rules. The league issued the Vikings a verbal warning. In 2012, the San Diego Chargers were fined $20,000 for failing to immediately surrender illicit, grip-improving "Stickum" towels when officials asked for them.
Brady refused to give investigators access to his email and text messages, even though the scope of the requests was limited to conversations about the handling of footballs. His unwillingness to fully cooperate — along with the team's past incident of cheating — likely led to a heavier penalty.
"Each player, no matter how accomplished and otherwise respected, has an obligation to comply with the rules and must be held accountable for his actions when those rules are violated and the public's confidence in the game is called into question," NFL Executive Vice President Troy Vincent wrote to Brady in a letter explaining the punishment.
This latest scandal comes after the most tumultuous NFL season on record, when the headlines were dominated by the domestic violence incidents involving star running backs Rice and Adrian Peterson. Notably, Kraft, the Patriots' owner, was among Goodell's staunchest advocates during those turbulent months.
By every indication, the incident has not dimmed Brady's star one iota among Patriots fans. He was cheered enthusiastically last week, one day after the Wells report was released, when he spoke at an event at Salem State University in Massachusetts. And there were loud boos when the moderator, journalist Jim Gray, asked whether the deflation controversy tainted New England's Super Bowl championship.
Brady smiled broadly before answering "absolutely not," to more cheers.
To some, that underscored the hubris of the Patriots, among the NFL's most polarizing franchises. Others could argue both sides.
"If you hate the Patriots you're going to say, 'Those guys always cheat,'" said Rich Gannon, a former NFL quarterback and league MVP. "But if Tom Brady had 12.5 pounds of pressure in those footballs or 11, what difference does it make? He's still one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. But the bottom line is, the rules were violated and there's a price to pay."
Marketing experts predicted Brady fans could find enough ambiguity in the NFL's investigation to stand behind their man.
"I have a hard time imagining that this has any real material consequence on his viability as an endorser," said Andrew Baker, marketing professor with San Diego State's sports MBA program. "I don't see any sponsors saying they have to back away."
Baker also said it was unlikely Brady's management team would launch a large campaign to protect the quarterback's reputation.
"What they've already done is probably the correct play," Baker said. "They said they disagree with the report, they think it's unfair. In the end, he'll take it on the chin quietly.
"Things will swing back the Patriots' way soon enough."