NEW YORK (AFP) - The NFL on Monday suspended New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for four games without pay over the "Deflategate" scandal after an investigation found he was "aware" of ball tampering in a key playoff game.
The National Football League also slapped the Patriots with a $1 million (S$1.34 million) fine and stripped the Super Bowl champions of both their 2016 first round draft pick and the 2017 fourth round draft pick.
"We reached these decisions after extensive discussion," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in Monday's suspension announcement.
"We relied on the critical importance of protecting the integrity of the game and the thoroughness and independence of the Wells report," he added, referring to the investigation findings.
Brady will miss the Patriots' first four games of the 2015 regular season - meaning that if the suspension isn't reduced or shortened he would return to the field against his accusers in week six, when the Patriots face the Indianapolis Colts.
"The evidence gathered during the investigation .... more than satisfy this standard and demonstrate an ongoing plan by at least certain Patriots' employees to deflate footballs, to do so in a secretive manner after the game officials have certified the footballs as suitable for play," NFL executive vice-president Troy Vincent said in a letter to Brady and the Patriots.
The punishment was announced five days after the release of the Wells report which discovered there 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."
The league went much further Monday, signalling out the two-time NFL MVP Brady for specific punishment saying he tarnished the league's image and refused to co-operate with the investigation. The league said Brady declined to turn over his cell phone, texts, and emails to help with the probe, "despite being offered extraordinary safeguards by the investigators to protect unrelated personal information."
"Although we do not hold the club directly responsible for Mr. Brady's refusal to cooperate, it remains significant that the quarterback of the team failed to cooperate fully with the investigation," Vincent wrote in a letter to Brady.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick was exonerated of any wrongdoing in the cheating scandal.
The league also said Monday that it believes this is not the first time the Patriots have been guilty of deflating footballs to try to give Brady a competitive advantage.
"The evidence suggests that January 18th was not the first and only occasion when this occurred, particularly in light of the evidence referring to deflation of footballs going back to before the beginning of the 2014 season," Vincent wrote.
The league said Brady, who can appeal the suspension, would still be allowed to take part in training camp, including pre-season games.
Brady's agent, Don Yee, criticised the Wells report last week as having "significant and tragic flaws" and Patriots owner Robert Kraft called it inconclusive.
Brady said during a public appearance last Thursday that he had no real reaction to the report, which he said he had not had time to read in full.