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Patriots' Deflategate cover-up could lead to punishment for Brady

If the just-released Ted Wells investigation was an NFL injury report, Tom Brady would be listed as probable. As in “more probable than not" that he was "at least generally aware" of the ball deflation shenanigans undertaken by two New England Patriots game day employees before January’s AFC Championship Game. As in more probable than not to be punished by the league in some fashion for that alleged awareness.

But that punishment – whatever it eventually entails; fine, suspension or loss of draft pick(s) – may not be as dramatic as many are expecting in the immediate aftermath of the release of the report, which made a strong circumstantial case that Brady knew those two employees were manipulating the air pressure in the balls at his behest.

Wells report finds it likely Patriots deflated balls, Brady knew about it

In my way of reading the tea leaves, the hint that the league probably won’t come down as hard on the Patriots or Brady as many anticipate is right there in the executive summary of the report’s conclusions: With Wells’ use of hedging language like "more probable than not" and "generally aware," the league is cognizant that it has not decisively proven that New England deliberately deflated footballs.

The preponderance of evidence might point in that direction in Wells's eyes, but there’s just enough wiggle room left in the language to convince me that the league will not go heavy-handed in this instance. You could almost say it’s not an air-tight case. Thus, I’d be surprised if any regular-season suspension longer than two games was forthcoming for Brady.

• MORE: SI's complete coverage of Deflategate

The court of public opinion will not be doling out any benefit of the doubt, of course. Brady’s squeaky-clean image and Hall of Fame playing legacy will take a hit thanks to his involvement in this integrity-of-the-game issue. There’s no denying that reality at this point, even if you optimistically choose to believe those damning text messages between Patriots equipment assistant John Jastremski and and officials locker room attendant Jim McNally were somehow taken out of context.

NFL players react to release of Deflategate report

But for Brady, the real shame of it all may be this: If you’re going to tarnish your good name after all these years, is a penchant for wanting footballs slightly under-inflated truly worth the taint? In short: It ain’t, Tommy. The downside and risk factor is far steeper than the potential reward.

To be clear, starting back in January, I never saw Deflategate as rising to the level of the Army-McCarthy hearings. I still think it’s a misdemeanor crime (albeit a serious one) to fiddle with the inflation levels of a game ball, but not a felony. And just because the NFL spent 103 days and an estimated $5 million (according to one source I talked to Wednesday) delving into the question in the Wells report doesn’t mean it takes on a new level of significance in terms of how slight ball deflation affects on-field events. I say let the punishment fit the crime, and remember, the Patriots played much better in the second half against the outmatched Indianapolis Colts, after the balls were properly re-inflated at halftime. Any so-called advantage wasn’t easy to identify.

But once again, it's the appearance of a cover-up (and how that feeds into the image of the envelope-pushing, rule-bending Patriots) that has more impact than the crime itself. The Wells report targets just Jastremski, McNally and Brady, but the ghost of Spygate now gets another, new round of relevancy, eight years after the fact. Whether it deserves one or not.

Patriots staffers' texts from Deflategate probe take shot at Brady

The headlines here will be that Brady apparently knew and had two co-conspirators, and McNally was probably doing what seemed entirely likely in the pre-kickoff moments in that bathroom just off the field at Gillette Stadium. Another factor not helping the Patriots' cause, in terms of potential discipline? The perceived lack of cooperation from Brady and the two other principals involved could prompt the NFL to hand down a stricter set of penalties. 

But it’s also important to remember that the league has no indisputable evidence that those footballs started their night’s work at 12.5 PSI, because inexplicably no record of pre-game measurements were made even though the Colts clearly had made the NFL aware of their ball deflation concerns about New England the day before the game. The scientific consultants to the Wells report found “no set of credible environmental or physical factors that completely accounts for the Patriots halftime (football inflation) measurements,’’ but it was also reported by those same consultants “that the data alone did not provide a basis for them to determine with absolute certainty whether there was or was not tampering.’’

Which translates to more wiggle room in the report’s language and findings, because total certainty apparently could not be attained, no matter how long Wells took to make his investigation public.

Lacking that kind of smoking gun evidence, the NFL, I suspect, isn’t going to throw the book at the Patriots organization or Brady. There will be a price of some sort to pay in New England, but it’ll probably be more from a reputation standpoint than anything. Brady’s credibility has been damaged, but not irreparably. This was a case that had some shades of gray, and the league seems to know it. Which is why the punishment will fit the crime, but at a serious misdemeanor level, rather than a full-blown felony conviction.