By Steve Ginsburg
(Reuters) - New England Patriots football star Tom Brady denied on Wednesday he had destroyed his cell phone to avoid giving it to NFL investigators, saying the flap was "manufactured" to distract from "zero evidence" against him in the "Deflategate" scandal.
Brady issued his statement a day after National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell upheld a four-game suspension of the quarterback for his part in an alleged scheme to deflate footballs below league standards in the game that put the Patriots in the 2015 Super Bowl.
Many NFL quarterbacks, including Brady, prefer softer game balls because they are easier to grip in cold weather.
"I am very disappointed by the NFL’s decision to uphold the four-game suspension against me," Brady said in a statement posted on his Facebook page. "I did nothing wrong, and no one in the Patriots organization did either."
Patriots owner Robert Kraft threw his support behind his player, considered one of the NFL's all-time greats.
"I was wrong to put my faith in the league," Kraft said in blasting Goodell for upholding the suspension. "I continue to believe and unequivocally support Tom Brady."
Goodell on Tuesday said Brady, one of the league's most popular and highest paid players, admitted during an appeal hearing last month that he directed an assistant to destroy his cell phone around March 6. That was the day he was due to meet with league investigators.
The commissioner said Brady's conduct suggested he was attempting to conceal evidence.
But Brady insisted on Wednesday there was nothing nefarious about the phone's destruction. As a member of the players union, he said, he was under no obligation to hand the phone to investigators. And he said he was never told that failing to do so would result in any discipline.
Brady said he replaced his broken Samsung phone with a new iPhone 6 after his attorneys made clear to the NFL that his phone would not be subjected to investigation.
Brady, a four-time Super Bowl champion, denied his phone, which the NFL said held some 10,000 text messages, contained any damning evidence.
"I have never written, texted, emailed to anybody at anytime, anything related to football air pressure before this issue was raised at the AFC Championship game in January," Brady wrote, referring to the American Football Conference game won by the Patriots.
Goodell initially leveled the penalty on Brady after a 243-page report from attorney Ted Wells, whom the NFL hired to investigate the matter.
Wells said the scheme to deflate the footballs was carried out by two Patriots employees. Under NFL rules at the time, the home team took possession of game balls before kickoff.
The investigators said he determined that Brady probably knew about the alleged scheme largely on the basis of text messages between the employees that implied the quarterback was aware of the plan to deflate the footballs.
Brady on Wednesday said the finding was unfair because there was no direct evidence to support it.
"There is no 'smoking gun,' and this controversy is manufactured to distract from the fact they have zero evidence of wrongdoing," the 37-year-old quarterback said in his post.
The NFL players union has said it would now take the case to federal court to have the suspension, which amounts to a fourth of the season, overturned.
U.S. District Judge Richard Berman in Manhattan asked the union to respond by Aug. 13 to the league's request that he declare the suspension valid under the collective bargaining agreement. A hearing would follow later.
The allegations of tampering surfaced during New England's 45-7 rout of the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC title game in January. Weather conditions on game day in a Boston suburb Boston were raw, and a ball deflated below league standards might have been easier for a quarterback like Brady to grip.
The victory enabled the Patriots to advance to the Super Bowl, where the team defeated the Seattle Seahawks 28-24 to claim the NFL championship.
Kraft said on Wednesday he regretted accepting the "harshest penalty in history of NFL" when he chose not to appeal a $1 million fine imposed on the team for its alleged role in the scandal. Goodell also ordered the club to surrender two draft choices, including the team's coveted No. 1 pick next year.
"I truly believe what I did in May, given the actual evidence of the situation and the league’s history on discipline matters, would make it much easier for the league to exonerate Tom Brady," Kraft said. "Unfortunately, I was wrong."
If the NFL's decision is upheld in court, the Patriots will have to overcome the loss of Brady until Oct. 18 when, ironically, they face the Colts.
Head coach Bill Belichick on Wednesday declined to get into the fray concerning Brady, saying the club will prepare for the season like it always has.
"We're going to take it day by day," he said.
(Additional reporting by Suzannah Gonzales; editing by Frank McGurty and Jonathan Oatis)