How NFL is likely to handle a Robert Kraft punishment

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Friday evening, an estimated 8.15 million American TV viewers heard anchor Lester Holt lead the NBC Nightly News this way: “Breaking news tonight … Shock waves as the billionaire owner of the New England Patriots, Robert Kraft, is charged in a day-spa prostitution sting.”

On Saturday morning, the 4 million subscribers (newspaper and web) to the New York Times read this headline above the fold on the front page: “Patriots Owner Facing Charges After Sex Sting.” That’s commissioner Roger Goodell’s morning paper. Inside, in the lead story of the Times sports section, respected NFL correspondent Ken Belson wrote: “However the case is resolved, the episode is an embarrassment to a league that likes to portray itself as a pillar of moral rectitude but has struggled to shake an image that its players, employees and team owners treat women poorly.”

“KRAFT FACES CHARGES OF SOLICITATION,” blared the front page of Kraft’s hometown Boston Globe, which landed on newsstands all over his beloved six-state New England region.

The NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy mandates that owners and club officials “will be subject to more significant discipline” for violations of the policy and reads: “Everyone who is part of the league must refrain from conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the NFL.”

Prostitution. Sex trafficking. Video evidence of Kraft’s involvement, according to police. The most negative of headlines and news coverage, focused on one of the most important owners in recent league history, on the steward of the franchise that has won more Super Bowls in one era (six) than any franchise in league history … and leading the news on a day with Washington imploding. Add to that the specter of the NFL’s incessant recruitment of women as fans and consumers and fantasy football players, and add to that the feeling by many in the outer boroughs of the league that Kraft is especially close to the league office. It just ratchets up the pressure on Goodell’s prospective judgment in the case. In Goodell’s 12-and-a-half years as commissioner, he hasn’t faced a situation like this one. Which makes it difficult to forecast what Goodell will do to Kraft, if the charges are true.

But there are clues.

Everything about the charge of Kraft on two occasions soliciting a prostitute—one used against her will in a case of human trafficking—has to be prefaced with “if.” The cases arising from a strip-mall spa in Jupiter, Fla., against a cadre of accused men have not been publicly proven, and we’re reminded by the Jussie Smollett case to let the facts surface before passing judgment. Police in Jupiter, Fla., have alleged Kraft twice frequented a spa accused of prostitution, and the police say they have incriminating video of Kraft. A spokesman for Kraft “categorically” denied involvement “in any illegal activity.” The league said it was aware of the case and was monitoring developments, the NFL’s euphemism for, “We’re buying time.” So that’s where it stands this morning.

But if the charges against Kraft prove to be true, I believe the Ray Rice precedent will come into play. And that would not be good news for Kraft. I believe if Kraft is found guilty, commissioner Roger Goodell couldn’t give Kraft a hefty fine alone. The problem with a fine of Kraft? The last sitting owner to be seriously sanctioned by Goodell, Indianapolis’ Jim Irsay, was suspended for six games and fined $500,000 for driving while impaired. That sort of fine, on its own, would be the ultimate slap on the wrist to a man Forbes says is worth $6.8 billion. To be exact, $500,000 would be one-fourteenth of 1 percent of Kraft’s worth. Next to nothing, really. That’s part of the reason why I believe Kraft, if he is guilty, is more likely than not to be suspended.

Think back to the Rice case in 2014. Rice, a Ravens running back, had an altercation with his fiancé at an Atlantic City hotel, and Goodell suspended Rice for two games. The light punishment was derided by the public—particularly women’s groups—and Goodell looked feckless when video of the altercation surfaced and showed Rice decking his fiancé with a single punch. The league revised its punishment, suspending Rice indefinitely, but by then it was too late. Goodell was ripped nationally for running an initially shoddy investigation of the case and for being soft on domestic violence.

So now, if Kraft is found to have used prostitutes being employed against their will in a human-trafficking scheme, the commissioner will have two choices:

  • Go light on Kraft if there’s no proof he knew the woman or women were employed against their will. That seems unlikely. When the NFL suspends players for using PEDs, even if the supplement was bought over the counter at a reputable vitamin store, players can’t use the excuse that they didn’t know a substance banned by the NFL was part of the supplement. Similarly, I doubt Goodell would accept a defense of “I didn’t know the women were part of a trafficking scheme.” Someone already involved in an illegal activity would not garner empathy for pleading ignorance there.
  • Give Kraft a significant sanction—a multi-week (or longer) suspension from all Patriots and league activities, and a fine. This would show the league taking a stand against the burgeoning American issue of human-trafficking (it is already the cause of highly respected Colts coach Frank Reich), as well as showing the public it won’t kid-glove a high-profile owner.

I think it would be the latter. Again, the case is still unproven, and it’s highly likely Goodell will wait to see the corroborating evidence.

But if found culpable, Kraft might be wise to suggest a third option. He has been generous to important causes, small and large. In addition to a multi-week suspension, he could agree to lead an NFL initiative to help fight human trafficking, and provide significant seed money for the project. That might be one way to limit the amount of long-term personal damage. Deadspin reported that Kraft already has supported the fight against human trafficking with a $100,000 donation in 2015 to the Boston-based “My Life My Choice,” which supports human-trafficking victims. This is a desperately needed cause in the United States and the world, and Kraft’s renewed backing of the fight could be crucial in the fight.

Some would suggest Kraft deserves to have his ownership of the team stripped. I don’t see that happening. When Carolina owner Jerry Richardson was accused by former staff members of sexual and personal improprieties late in 2017 by Sports Illustrated, Richardson stepped away from the team and sold the franchise six weeks before the NFL fined him for his actions. Harboring a culture of intimidation inside his organization, and pressuring multiple female employees for sexual-related favors over a period of years, as Richardson did, could have led to him being stripped of his team. But Goodell never had to rule on that because Richardson voluntarily stepped away.

What would wound Kraft deeply, if found guilty, is knowing that damage he’d have done to his name and his brand—and it would be the third strike against his dynasty. The Spygate scandal tarnished Bill Belichick in 2007 (costing him $500,000 and the team a first-round draft choice), and the Deflategate scandal in 2015 got Tom Brady suspended for four games and cost the team another first-round pick. Because this violation has nothing to do with the competitive aspects of football, it wouldn’t be subject to draft-pick penalty. Goodell would hand down a penalty he feels is just. But Kraft being found guilty would be the third strike against the best long-term team in modern football history, even though it would have nothing to do with football.

One last point: If Goodell has to rule on Kraft, it will be watched as closely as any recent ruling he’s made—by the football community and by women in many communities monitoring a business that has talked a good game about women but has not always walked the walk. It’d be naïve to think Goodell’s clumsy handling of Rice would not be brought up to him by a largely new staff of PR operatives inside the NFL. That matters.

For now, the legal process will play out, in Jupiter, Fla., and in New England and inside the NFL offices in New York, and the consequences to a surprising story will be mulled. “We’re as equally stunned as anyone else,” Jupiter police chief Daniel Kerr said Friday. He’s not alone.

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