By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Tom Brady's appeal of his four-game National Football League suspension for participating in a scheme to deflate footballs during last season's playoffs began on Tuesday at NFL headquarters.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who approved the suspension, is the arbiter of the appeal by the New England Patriots quarterback, who was found by a league-hired investigator to have been aware of the plan.
The Patriots were fined $1 million and forced to surrender two draft choices for deflating footballs in a 45-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in January's AFC championship, which put New England in the Super Bowl.
New England defeated the Seattle Seahawks, 28-24, in the Super Bowl, a title now viewed by some as tainted. Deflating a football below NFL standards could enable a quarterback to grip the ball better, especially in the raw conditions in which the AFC title game was played.
A four-game suspension against the 37-year-old Brady could harm his legacy as one of the NFL's greatest quarterbacks ever. He has denied any knowledge of a plan to deflate the balls.
Should Goodell uphold the league's suspension, the four-time Super Bowl champion could take his case to federal court, where the NFL's track record has been shaky recently.
Ted Wells, hired by the NFL to investigate how the footballs lost the air, said Brady was aware of the plan, which Wells said was carried out by two Patriots employees, officials' locker room attendant Jim McNally and equipment assistant John Jastremski.
Wells, whose investigation has drawn praise by some and been blasted by others, is expected to testify at the hearing, which could last through Thursday.
The NFL Players Association unsuccessfully called for Goodell to recuse himself from Brady's appeal, labeling him a key witness and saying he would be partial to the Wells report.
Brady's appeal pits one of the NFL's most popular players against the most profitable sports league in the United States at a time when it is reeling from criticism over its handling of players involved with domestic violence and a concussion settlement for retired players that could ultimately cost $1 billion.
Experts believe Brady has a chance to get his suspension halved since the penalty is severe by NFL standards. The league, for example, assesses the same suspension for first-time violators caught using performance-enhancing drugs.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft did not admit the team's guilt, but decided against appealing the penalty.
(Reporting by Steve Ginsburg in Washington; Editing by Lisa Lambert and Bill Trott)