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'Deflategate' fallout: What is an appropriate punishment?

The report from NFL independent investigator Ted Wells regarding the New England Patriots' actions before, during, and after the AFC Championship Game back in January has finally surfaced. What's the next step?

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New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady talks to the media at Gillette Stadium, Jan 22, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass.

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New England Patriots supporters and detractors alike have found plenty of cannon fodder in independent investigator Ted Wells's report on the 'Deflategate' controversy that has engulfed the sports world. 

For the detractors, this is the official affirmation they've been waiting to get their hands on; documented proof of a rogue, recidivist team caught participating in an illegal act that impacted the game. For Patriots supporters, it is an ambiguous 200-plus-page report with a mountain of circumstantial evidence that places varying degrees of guilt on multiple parties, but fails to provide concrete proof of who let the air out and on whose order. 

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Wells's report concludes that it was, "more probable than not" quarterback Tom Brady was aware that two Patriots locker room attendants were deflating the game footballs. However, in the 243-page report there is nothing that would indicate Mr. Brady directly ordered the equipment managers to deflate the balls below the legal minimum threshold of 12.5 PSI.

It should be noted that fellow star quarterback Aaron Rodgers has admitted his desire to "push the limits" of the football air pressure and conceded that he likes them overinflated, according to Pro Football Talk. To date, no "Inflategate" investigation has been launched.

According to the Wells report, Brady even played a game this season against the New York Jets where the footballs were found to have a PSI of 16, which is over the legal limit.

All told, the report states NFL officials often do not record pre-game PSI levels of game balls before use. Those that were deemed under-inflated were arbitrarily filled back up with air. These discrepancies, among others, were pointed out by Brady's agent Don Yee, in a statement Thursday to Fox Sports 1's Mike Garafolo.

The Wells report, with all due respect, is a significant and terrible disappointment. It’s omission of key facts and lines of inquiry suggest the investigators reached a conclusion first, and then determined so-called facts later. [...] 

The investigators' assumptions and inferences are easily debunked or subject to multiple interpretations. Much of the report’s vulnerabilities are buried in the footnotes, which is a common legal writing tactic. It is a sad day for the league as it has abdicated the resolution of football-specific issues to people who don’t understand the context or culture of the sport.

For now, the questions are: who gets punished and how severely? Despite no proof of official instructions to deflate footballs from the team leadership, the Wells report assumes some degree of guilt on the part of Brady. Short of the league demanding the team fire the two equipment employees, collective punishment for the team like a large fine (the team was fined $250,000 for the Spygate scandal) or loss of a draft pick may be an overreach. Especially considering that the impact of the deflated footballs on the outcome of the one-sided game is up for debate.

Brady will likely bear the punishment, as he did not offer his cell phone to NFL investigators. Former quarterback Brett Favre refused to hand over his phone to league investigators over a sexual harassment case during his time with the Jets in 2008. As a result, Favre was fined $50,000 but not suspended.

Recent disciplinary action by the NFL may dictate the spectrum on which commissioner Roger Goodell could punish Brady on, according to Yahoo! Sports. Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer was suspended four games for texting coaches on the sideline during a game, and the Atlanta Falcons were fined $350,000 and had a draft pick taken away when a group of team employees pumped fake crowd noise into the Georgia Dome during a home game on their own behalf.

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So for those expecting and/or hoping for a season-long suspension for Brady, like that of New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton following the "Bountygate" scandal, there will probably be at least one more deflation on the horizon.