Robert Kraft will get his day in court while facing two misdemeanor charges of soliciting prostitution. But from the moment Jupiter, Florida, police identified the New England Patriots owner as part of a sting operation investigating possible human trafficking, it was apparent that Kraft’s mere presence in the matter is already responsible for staining the NFL’s so-called “shield.”
Nearly three weeks ago, Kraft basked in the glory of yet another Super Bowl crown for the Patriots. Last weekend, he rolled with the ballers and rappers during NBA All-Star Weekend.
Now he’s the biggest name to be released so far by police, who declared Friday that they have video evidence that proves the Patriots owner, 77, twice paid for sexual acts.
No, it’s not good for the brand when the owner of the NFL’s most successful organization of this era attracts such scandalous attention, lining up in the news cycle on Friday – and likely for weeks beyond – with the likes of Jussie Smollett, R. Kelly and his Oval Office pal, President Donald Trump.
Say it ain’t so, Bob.
Sure, Kraft is presumed innocent until proven guilty. We’ll see if the charges – which in addition to fines carry a maximum of 60 days in jail for a first offense, one year for a second offense – hold up in court.
Yet Kraft’s stellar reputation, linked to the image-conscious sports league that is more popular than any, instantly took a significant blow that threatens to become part of his legacy.
A spokesman for Kraft quickly responded as such: “We categorically deny that Mr. Kraft engaged in any illegal activity. Because it is a judicial matter, we are not commenting further.”
And there’s this statement from league headquarters: “The NFL is aware of the ongoing law enforcement matter and will continue to monitor developments.”
KRAFT: What we know about Patriots owner’s prostitution solicitation charges
Let’s remember, when it comes to NFL matters, there are two courts of law to consider: The jurisprudence of the land and Roger Goodell’s court.
The two are supposedly mutually exclusive, yet they’re intertwined in the reality that Goodell’s credibility – with damage already inflicted on the league’s reputation – suddenly faces another challenge in how he handles the case of one of the NFL’s most respected power brokers and one of his biggest personal supporters.
This is why the commissioner gets paid the big bucks: Protect the shield.
Goodell did some splendid dancing on behalf of his bosses, the NFL owners, when it came to repeatedly defending the league in the recently settled collusion case stemming from the apparent blackballing of Colin Kaepernick.
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Alternatively, Goodell dropped the hammer on Jim Irsay in 2014, suspending him for six games and fining him the maximum amount of $500,000 after the Indianapolis Colts owner pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated and was found to possess controlled substances.
And he stood his ground against Kraft and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the Deflategate case. Ordered an investigation into the workplace misconduct allegations that led to then-Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson quickly selling the franchise. Went toe-to-toe with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in suspending Ezekiel Elliott for violating the conduct policy amid domestic violence allegations against the running back.
So, Goodell’s track record on personal conduct matters – as a number of current and former players will attest – suggests that he’ll take action against Kraft. Yet if he does, the key will be the swiftness and substance of any such move.
The NFL’s personal conduct policy clearly states this much: “Ownership and club or league management have traditionally been held to a higher standard and will be subject to more significant discipline when violations of the Personal Conduct Policy occur.”
Now Goodell can define those words in real time.
Kraft deserves his due process but not a double standard. In fact, as the NFL’s conduct policy states, he deserves to be subject to a higher standard.
Can Kraft be placed on some version of the “commissioner’s exempt list” and removed from day-to-day involvement with the Patriots and NFL while he tries to legally clear his name?
That would represent a strong statement from Goodell. After all, with the charges against Kraft coming from the law enforcement community the NFL embraces, this is not a he-said, she-said civil suit.
Yet I wonder if Kraft’s immense collateral equity, if you will, will play a role in how Goodell responds.
Multiple reports said that Kraft, after all, urged Trump to help seal the deal that allowed Canadian broadcasters to sell their own Super Bowl ads, which the NFL pursued for years to no avail. He was also the NFL owner who probably had the biggest influence in striking the labor deal in 2011 that ended the lockout, while his wife, Myra, was in the final stages of battling the ovarian cancer that took her life. And when pondering the impact of a community-minded team like the Patriots, Kraft is some kind of legend – the former season-ticket holder who saved the franchise from moving from the region, the whiz who hired Bill Belichick.
Kraft’s narrative, though, has suddenly expanded in the worst way – as something fresh to come across Goodell’s desk, something suddenly attached to the sports environment and a legal matter to boot.
It was strange to see a professional talking head on ESPN state at least a half-dozen times in a matter of minutes Friday how “uncomfortable” it was to discuss Kraft in this vein.
That’s like the “we never imagined it could happen here” soundbites you hear when tragedy strikes in particular neighborhoods. Unfortunately, sports and society are interwoven. There have been so many examples of NFL figures – in many cases, players – being involved in all sorts of off-the-field issues for which the talking heads don’t use “uncomfortable” to preface the analysis.
Something happened. Kraft is on full blast, like players, coaches and all sorts of public figures. It’s the world we live in. Unfortunate, but not “uncomfortable” to ponder that.
How about the comforting thought that Kraft needs to held to a higher standard – and maybe for his own good, too.
Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.