The New England Patriots hit back at cheating claims on Thursday, with star quarterback Tom Brady denying the club had deflated balls to help them reach the Super Bowl.
Brady and Patriots coach Bill Belichick both appeared on nationally televised press conferences to rebut the claims as the controversy swirling around America’s biggest sporting event reached fever pitch.
NFL chiefs are probing allegations that balls used by the Patriots offense in their 45-7 rout of the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday were inflated below standard league levels — giving Brady and his team-mates an advantage by making them easier to handle.
But Brady, one of the scandal-tainted NFL’s biggest stars, flatly denied any involvement in the scandal dubbed ‘deflategate.’
“I didn’t alter the balls in any way,” said Brady, who is preparing for a record sixth Super Bowl in Arizona on February 1.
“I feel like I have always played within the rules. I would never break the rules,” added Brady, a three-time Super Bowl winner and two-time NFL Most Valuable Player.
Brady’s comments echoed those made earlier in the day by Belichick, who said he was “shocked” to learn of the possibly illegal footballs on Monday.
“I have never talked to any player, staff member about football air pressure,” Belichick said.
“To me, the footballs are approved by the league and game officials pre-game, and we play with what’s out there.”
– ‘This isn’t ISIS’ –
Brady had originally laughed off the suggestion of wrongdoing by the Patriots in a radio appearance on Monday, thinking it was “sour grapes.”
By Thursday, the 37-year-old superstar was aware of the magnitude of the issue.
“It’s very serious,” Brady said. “Obviously, integrity of the sport is very important.”
However, he added that he believed he and the Patriots would get through it.
“Things are going to be fine,” he said. “This isn’t ISIS. No one’s dying,” he said, referring to the militant group waging war in Iraq and Syria.
Although the league has given no timetable for announcing its findings, they have reportedly found that 11 of 12 balls provided by the Patriots for the game did not meet league standards.
Brady said he had yet to be contacted by league officials about the issue, which seems certain to cloud the build up to the Super Bowl in Phoenix, Arizona.
The title game and its attendant halftime show draw millions of viewers, with television advertisers paying as much as $4 million a slot to reach the massive audience.
Brady, who also regularly appears in celebrity news magazines due to his marriage to Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen, admitted the controversy had soured his preparations for the Super Bowl.
“It’s disappointing that a situation like this happens,” Brady said. “Obviously I would love to be up here in a very joyful mood. These are the best two weeks of the year if you happen to be one of the two teams still playing.”
– Pats in trouble before –
The whiff of scandal could be especially damaging for the Patriots, who have been sanctioned for infractions in the past.
Belichick was fined $500,000 and the team docked $250,000 over the 2007 “spygate” affair, in which the NFL found they illegally filmed another team’s hand signals during a game.
If the NFL does find the Patriots purposely under-inflated the balls, they could be subject to fines and the loss of draft picks.
As for the Super Bowl, Brady said he believes whatever the outcome of the league’s probe, his team belongs there.
“I feel like we won the game fair and square,” he said.
The controversy comes at the end of an NFL season dogged by lurid headlines over domestic violence scandals, with Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice kicked out of the sport after video emerged of him punching his future wife unconscious in an elevator.
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson also saw his season cut short when he was suspended for severely whipping his four-year-old son with a tree branch.