If we can’t get accountability from our would-be political leaders, can we expect much from cultural leaders? The NFL has tried to answer that affirmatively in their investigation of “Deflate-Gate,” the alleged cheating of the New England Patriots during last season’s AFC championship in January. The investigators released a report today that concludes that equipment handlers for the team deliberately deflated the balls, and that star quarterback Tom Brady was “generally aware” of the tampering:

For the reasons described in this Report, and after a comprehensive investigation, we have concluded that, in connection with the AFC Championship Game, it is more probable than not that New England Patriots personnel participated in violations of the Playing Rules and were involved in a deliberate effort to circumvent the rules. In particular, we have concluded that it is more probable than not that Jim McNally (the Officials Locker Room attendant for the Patriots) and John Jastremski (an equipment assistant for the Patriots) participated in a deliberate effort to release air from Patriots game balls after the balls were examined by the referee. Based on the evidence, it also is our view that it is more probable than not that Tom Brady (the quarterback for the Patriots) was at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities of McNally and Jastremski involving the release of air from Patriots game balls.

However, the investigation lets pretty much everyone else off the hook, especially when it comes to a separate allegation that the Pats tried to substitute a tampered football for a kick:

Based on the evidence, the investigation has further concluded that that there was no deliberate attempt by the Patriots to introduce to the playing field a non-approved kicking ball during the AFC Championship Game. Although Patriots personnel provided a kicking ball to game officials that did not have the distinctive inspection mark of the referee, we find that the Patriots personnel involved believed the ball to be authentic and appropriate. We do not believe that there was any attempt by Patriots personnel, including Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski, to deliberately circumvent the rules by offering the kicking ball for play.

We do not believe that the evidence establishes that any other Patriots personnel participated in or had knowledge of the violation of the Playing Rules or the deliberate effort to circumvent the rules described in this Report. In particular, we do not believe there was any wrongdoing or knowledge of wrongdoing by Patriots ownership, Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick or any other Patriots coach in the matters investigated. We also do not believe there was any wrongdoing or knowledge of wrongdoing by Patriots Head Equipment Manager Dave Schoenfeld.

The report pegs McNally and Jastremski as the sole agents at work in this scheme. It also alleges that the effort came in response to repeated angry messages from Brady about the pressure in game balls. Those started in mid-October and went through the playoffs, and the two equipment managers were not happy with their star QB about it. “F*** Tom,” McNally texted at one point, “f****n watermelons coming,” he threatened about an upcoming game against Chicago. “The only thing delafting sun..is his passing rating”.

The messages on October 24th and January 7th suggest that Brady had agreed to some kind of payment for softer footballs:

McNally: Better be surrounded by cash and newkicks….or its a rugby sunday

McNally: F*** tom

Jastremski: Maybe u will have some nice size 11s in ur locker

McNally: Tom must really be working your balls hard this week […]

Jastremski: U got it kid…big autograph day for you

McNally: Nice throw some kicks in and make it real special

Jastremski: It ur lucky. 11?

McNally: 11 or 11 and half kid

On January 10, 2015, immediately prior to the game between the Patriots and the Ravens, in the Patriots equipment room with both Brady and Jastremski present, McNally received two footballs autographed by Brady and also had Brady autograph a game-worn Patriots jersey that McNally previously had obtained.

The Patriots tried telling investigators that these text messages were merely attempts at humor, but they weren’t laughing:

Counsel for the Patriots also contended that the text messages between McNally and Jastremski referring to the inflation levels of footballs and related topics were not serious and should be seen as nothing more than attempts at humor and hyperbole. We also find these claims not plausible. As noted above and described more fully in the Report, we believe that although a number of the communications between McNally and Jastremski were attempts at humor, McNally and Jastremski were making jokes based on actual events.

They’re less specific when it comes to Brady’s participation in this scheme, but they conclude that it’s more probable than not that he took an active role. Investigators noticed a significant pattern of communication between Brady and Jastremski:

Additional evidence of Brady‟s awareness includes a material increase in the frequency of telephone and text communications between Brady and Jastremski shortly after suspicions of ball tampering became public on January 19. After not communicating by telephone or text message for more than six months (based on data retrieved from Jastremski‟s cell phone), Brady and Jastremski spoke by telephone at least twice on January 19 (calls lasting a total of 25 minutes and 2 seconds), twice on January 20 (calls lasting a total of 9 minutes and 55 seconds) and twice on January 21 (calls lasting a total of 20 minutes and 52 seconds) before Jastremski surrendered his cell phone to the Patriots later that day for forensic imaging. These calls included conversations relatively early during the mornings of January 19 (7:26 a.m. for 13 minutes and 4 seconds), January 20 (8:22 a.m. for 6 minutes and 21 seconds) and January 21 (7:38 a.m. for 13 minutes and 47 seconds). Brady also took the unprecedented step of inviting Jastremski to the QB room (essentially Brady‟s office) in Gillette Stadium on January 19 for the first and only time that Jastremski can recall during his twenty-year career with the Patriots, and Brady sent Jastremski text messages seemingly designed to calm Jastremski (“You good Jonny boy?”; “You doing good?”). For his part, Jastremski sent Brady text messages confirming that he was okay (“Still nervous; so far so good though”) and cautioning Brady about questioning  (“FYI…Dave will be picking your brain later about it. He‟s not accusing me, or anyone…trying to get to bottom of it. He knows it‟s unrealistic you did it yourself…”).

The report also notes that Brady publicly denied any role in the deflation scheme, and finds it less than credible:

Oddly (or not), Brady turned out to be less than cooperative when it came to producing records of his communications despite these denials, the report states. His refusal, even to have the records screened with his own lawyers present, “was not helpful to the investigation.” That doesn’t sound like someone who has nothing to hide.

So … what does the NFL do with this now? The team will probably have some sort of penalty — perhaps the loss of a couple of draft choices to the teams impacted by the cheating — but the exoneration of Belichick will likely limit those consequences. Brady should be penalized as well, but don’t expect the league to sideline one of its biggest stars over something like this. He’ll likely get fined, while the two men who tampered with the balls may end up looking for new careers … although the Patriots might as well keep them around, especially for taking one for the team literally.

In other words, this will likely end up looking like political accountability. Sorry, sports fans.