By Steve Ginsburg
(Reuters) - New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on Thursday formally appealed a four-game suspension for his role in "Deflategate" after his team, one of America's most high-profile sports franchises, delivered a blistering rebuttal of an NFL investigation into the matter.
The NFL players union, which filed the appeal on behalf of Brady, called for an independent arbitrator to hear the case involving one of the NFL's marquee players.
"Given the NFL's history of inconsistency and arbitrary decisions in disciplinary matters, it is only fair that a neutral arbitrator hear this appeal," the union said in a statement announcing Brady's move.
Brady's appeal pits the NFL's most-popular player against the most-profitable sports league in the United States at a time when it is reeling from the stinging criticism it received for the way it handled players involved with domestic violence and a concussion settlement for retired players that could ultimately cost it $1 billion.
The league suspended Brady without pay for the first four games of next season, fined the club a record $1 million, and forced the Patriots to relinquish two draft choices for purposely deflating footballs used in the team's 45-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts that put it into the Super Bowl.
In a website created to dispute the findings of the investigation, the Patriots said the conclusions in the report were "incomplete, incorrect and lack context."
Two days after independent investigator Ted Wells steadfastly defended the conclusions he reached implicating Brady and two Patriots employees in the scheme, the team fired back.
"There is no evidence that Tom Brady preferred footballs that were lower than 12.5 psi and no evidence anyone even thought that he did," according to the team's counterclaim, written by attorney Daniel Goldberg, who represented the club and was present during all interviews of team personnel conducted at Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots also included Nobel Prize Laureate Roderick MacKinnon's "scientific conclusion" that challenges the Wells report's rejection of scientific explanations as to how the footballs could have naturally lost air pressure.
Now that Brady, a four-time Super Bowl champion and in many ways the face of the NFL, has filed his appeal, league Commissioner Roger Goodell has one week to appoint an arbitrator in the case.
Assuming he does not hear the appeal himself, speculation is that Goodell will tap former NFL executive Harold Henderson, who has handled several arbitrations for the league, including that of Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings running back charged with hitting his 4-year-old child with a switch.
Although it did not mention Henderson by name, the union has said in the past it does not believe he is impartial.
"If Ted Wells and the NFL believe, as their public comments stated, that the evidence in their report is 'direct' and 'inculpatory,' then they should be confident enough to present their case before someone who is truly independent," the union said.
Wells said he believes a series of text messages by two Patriots employees implicated Brady, a three-time Super Bowl most valuable player who is married to Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen.
The Wells report identified the two Patriots employees, officials' locker room attendant Jim McNally and equipment assistant John Jastremski, as the ones who deflated the footballs.
The Patriots, who suspended both indefinitely last week, have not said whether they will appeal the club's penalties.
"Texts acknowledged to be attempts at humor and exaggeration are nevertheless interpreted as a plot to improperly deflate footballs, even though none of them refer to any such plot," the Patriots' 20,000-word rebuttal, posted on Wellsreportcontext.com, said.
OUT OF CONTEXT
The Patriots said the word "deflator" used in the texts cited by Wells in his report was taken out of context.
"Mr. Jastremski would sometimes work out and bulk up -- he is a slender guy and his goal was to get to 200 pounds," the team, which has until May 21 to appeal its punishment, said in the rebuttal.
"Mr. McNally is a big fellow and had the opposite goal: to lose weight. 'Deflate' was a term they used to refer to losing weight."
Deflating the balls would likely allow Brady to grip the ball better, especially in the cold and wet conditions during the AFC title game in January. New England subsequently defeated the Seattle Seahawks 28-24 to win the Super Bowl.
Experts believe that Brady has a chance to have his suspension reduced by half given that the penalty is severe by NFL standards. For example, the assesses the same suspension for first-time violators caught using performance-enhancing drugs.
In addition, the league is on a losing streak of sorts after penalties levied on two high-profile players involved in domestic abuse, Peterson and former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, were reversed on appeal.
Brady has denied any knowledge how the balls lost air after being examined by a referee of the NFL. He refused to surrender his phone to Wells but Brady's agent, Donald Yee, said the quarterback has a lot of personal information on it and did not want to hand it over.
The team and its fans are showing few signs of throwing in the towel. On their Twitter account, the Patriots changed the avatar to the back of Brady's No. 12 jersey.
Patriots fans this week set up a website to solicit donations to pay the team's $1 million fine and by Thursday afternoon had collected $15,691.
(Reporting by Steve Ginsburg in Washington; Editing by Alan Crosby)