(AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

Tom Brady is one of the greatest players in NFL history, the only quarterback to play in six Super Bowls, the undisputed on-field leader of the sport’s most successful franchise in this generation. He is also a liar. Brady probably cheated, an NFL-commissioned report found, and he lied about it. The actions do not invalidate his career, but they incinerated his golden-boy image and made messy the once-simple assessment of his place in history.

Investigator Ted Wells’s NFL-commissioned report regarding the New England Patriots’ DeflateGate scandal concluded, with a strong degree of probability, that two equipment men – one of them hilariously foul-mouthed and unabashedly fond of sneakers, size 11 – deflated footballs at the behest of Brady.

We don’t know exactly how much throwing a deflated football helped him, or if it should measurably change the way we view Brady as a quarterback. Truth-telling and athletic greatness are not inextricably linked. Wells and the NFL found a professional athlete most likely sought and gained an illicit competitive advantage, which happens to at least a minor degree every time a professional sporting event happens.

[Wells Report: ‘More probable than not’ that Patriots violated rules with Brady’s knowledge]

But Brady broke the rules, and even if the advantage he gained can and will be debated, the NFL should punish Brady. What penalty fits the crime? The investigation found Brady, in all likelihood, knowingly cheated in one game. It happened to be the AFC championship game, a far more important contest than a regular-season game. The NFL should suspend Brady at least two games. Does it have the temerity to bench Brady for the nationally televised season opener?

Brady deserves a suspension because messing with the air inside of a football messes with competitive fairness. We know it matters to Brady, because he said so back in 2006, before the NFL changed its rules to allow quarterbacks to adjust the inflation of a ball between certain parameters. And we know it with even more certainty now, because Brady took the risk of gaining a better grip through systematic measures before one of the most scrutinized games of the sports calendar. If it didn’t have the potential to make him better, Brady wouldn’t have gone to the trouble.

[Patriots’ punishment may hinge on repeat offender status]

We know the rest of the NFL believed it mattered, too, because Colts General Manager Ryan Grigson broached the topic of air pressure of the Patriots’ footballs with the NFL before the AFC title game.

“It is well known around the league that after the Patriots gameballs [SIC] are checked by the officials and brought out for game usage the ballboys for the patriots will let out some air with a ball needle because their quarterback likes a smaller football so he can grip it better,” Grigson wrote. “It would be great if someone would be able to check the air in the game balls as the game goes on so that they don’t get an illegal advantage.”

Wells’s investigation could not determine the full scope of Brady’s cheating, in part because of the quarterback’s lack of cooperation and his lack of veracity. Brady refused to turn over electronic communication such as text messages and cell phone records. Even more brashly, Brady told lies during his interview with Wells’s team.

[Read the full report]

The report called him out in no uncertain terms. “Brady denied any knowledge of or involvement in any efforts to deflate game balls after the pre-game inspection by the game officials,” the report said. He also claimed he knew neither the identity nor role of Jim McNally, the officials’ locker room attendant who tampered with footballs after referees inspected them.

Post NFL editor Keith McMillan recruits a few coworkers to see if they can tell which football has been under-inflated by 2 PSI, the amount the NFL claims the New England Patriots' game balls were deflated. (Davin Coburn and Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

“We found these claims not plausible and contradicted by other evidence,” the report said. “In fact, during his interview, [John] Jastremski” — an equipment manager who worked with McNally and had a flurry of cell phone contact with Brady — “acknowledged that Brady knew McNally and McNally’s role as Officials Locker Room attendant. Similarly, McNally told NFL Security that he had been personally told by Brady of Brady’s inflation level preference.”

Before Brady lied to Wells, he lied to the public. Two days after the AFC championship, Brady delivered an unconvincing news conference. The quivering in his voice could be blamed, at the times, on plain nerves. Now we know he looked like he was lying because he was.

“I have no knowledge of anything,” Brady said then, among other falsehoods. “I have no knowledge of any wrongdoing. I’m very comfortable saying nobody did it, as far as I know.”

[Early Lead: Hilarious texts between Patriots equipment handlers]

Wells’s report turned anyone who believed Brady into a fool. The Patriots might try to cling to Wells’s admission that he cannot state with utter certainty that Brady knew about the pregame ball deflation. But Wells presents enough evidence for only a blind sycophant to believe Brady had no say in the air pressure inside the balls.

Brady’s historic place as a quarterback should remain stable, because to say otherwise would make the mistake of conflating morals and athletic achievement. The enhanced grip matters, yes, but it is not responsible for Super Bowl rings and 4,000-yard passing seasons. It helped, just like Vaseline on an offensive lineman’s jersey helps keep defensive linemen from yanking him around. He cheated, but not in a way that guaranteed success.

But what remains of Brady’s golden reputation just disappeared. You can still appreciate Brady’s precision, his quick mind, his steady leadership. Much of his brilliance on the field resided in his ability to always find the right play, to never put himself in a tough situation.

Away from the field, when he found himself in a difficult spot, he resorted to a different tactic. There was no defense to manipulate or play to change. He had two choices: to admit and explain what he did or evade. And Tom Brady lied.

DeflateGate backstory

Five questions answered on DeflateGate

Kilgore: Tired of DeflateGate? Blame the NFL.

Brady on DeflateGate: ‘I didn’t alter ball in any way’

President Obama zings Patriots over DeflateGate