By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - Seven New England Patriots fans sued the National Football League on Tuesday, asking a judge to reverse a decision by the league to strip the team of a first-round pick in this month's draft over allegations of underinflated footballs.
In a lawsuit filed in Boston federal court, the fans contend that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell acted unlawfully when he took away two draft picks as punishment for the "Deflategate" scandal, in which the team was accused of manipulating balls to better meet star quarterback Tom Brady's tastes in 2015 playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks.
The Patriots won that game, setting them on the path to Brady's fourth Super Bowl championship.
The draft is a key moment in the NFL's year, when teams get a shot to pick up college players to strengthen their rosters. The most prized athletes are typically picked in the first rounds of selection.
The fans that brought the lawsuit - which alleges the league violated the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, the sort of charge typically levied against mob bosses - are residents of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and Florida.
Lead plaintiff and Patriots season ticket holder Todd Orsatti, of Bristol, Connecticut, said in the filing that his seven-year-old daughter was so distraught by the league's Deflategate decision that she will no longer come to games with him.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft reluctantly accepted the lost draft picks, the second set for the fourth round of the 2017 draft, as well as a $1 million fine. The team successfully challenged the NFL's effort to suspend Brady from playing in the first four games of the 2015 season.
A New York federal court judge blocked that suspension days before the season's start; the league has since appealed that decision contending that Goodell acted within his rights as league commissioner.
An NFL spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
A 243-page, $2.5 million report on the allegations commissioned by the NFL found that it was "more probable than not" that Brady, now 38, had been "generally aware" that two low-level Patriots employees had conspired to take pressure out of footballs, which can make them easier to grip.
Brady and the team have repeatedly denied wrongdoing, contending that staff had not been instructed to inflate balls to less than the standard 12.5 pounds per square inch of pressure mandated by NFL rules.
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Andrew Hay)