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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Why the New York Jets deserve the controversy, dysfunction surrounding them

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1. I think the Jets architecture job is not the one to take if you want to run a franchise, Peyton Manning. To be charitable, the Jets are not close to contention.

2. I think I won’t be the first to use this rationale for my opinion about what happened when Mike Maccagnan got dismissed the other day as Jets GM, but it’s the first thing that occurred to me: The Jets truly deserve this controversy. A few points:

• I have no sympathy for Maccagnan, who lorded over a 14-35 team since New Year’s Day 2016. Only Cleveland and San Francisco have won fewer games since then. But by my math, Maccagnan just spent $235 million in free agency this offseason, a gargantuan sum. He just had the keys to the draft and, apparently with minimal input from the head coach, made Quinnen Williams the third overall pick in the draft. He was fired 19 days after the draft. What owner in his right mind allows a GM he figures he may well fire run a crucial off-season? Christopher Johnson, that’s who.

• Adam Gase is going to have a major say on who becomes the next GM of the Jets. Gase was 23-26 in his three-year stint coaching the Dolphins, and, though the quarterback position was plagued by injuries while he was there, he’s supposed to be a quarterback guru, and the Dolphins, again, are starting from scratch at the position after firing Gase four-and-a-half months ago. I like Gase well enough. But what exactly has he done, first, to earn a head-coaching job after his three years in Miami … and, second, to play a significant role in picking the architect of the new Jets?

• I assume the reports of Gase not wanting Le’Veon Bell for $13.5 million a year are true. (I don’t blame him.) But the leaks in that building are never-ending, and in this case, the leaks could drive a wedge between a guy who doesn’t seem very happy to be a Jet in the first place, Bell, and the guy who’s going to be calling his number this fall. Gase better figure a way to tamp that down. I don’t know if he can.

• How do you have faith in the Jets to get this GM thing right now? And what smart GM-candidate type (Joe Douglas or Louis Riddick or Daniel Jeremiah) would want to take his one shot—because most GMs get one shot at running a team—working for Christopher Johnson?

• If I were Mike Greenberg, I’d be burying my head in my hands this morning, wondering why oh why did I get stuck loving this franchise? How can season-ticket-holders send in their money this year thinking they’re going to see the turnaround season of a team that’s won 5, 5, and 4 games the past three years?

• Sam Darnold doesn’t coach.

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The lessons Chris Long learned from playing with Patriots, Eagles, Rams

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Chris Long, who retired over the weekend after an 11-year NFL career that ended with two Super Bowl rings (in 2016 with New England and 2017 with Philadelphia), and an NFL Man of the Year Award (in 2018) for his work in U.S. social justice and building fresh-water wells for thousands in Africa, on the lessons he takes with him into retirement:

“I learned to never make a decision based on just one thing. The decision to retire was complicated. It was based on health, which is still very good, and family, we have two small children, and football fit, which includes a chance to win and my role and geography. Philadelphia is where I wanted to play a couple more years. I love Philadelphia. But as a player I learned the most important thing to me is Sunday, and having a chance to be a big part of it. It seemed like player-coach was kind of the role that was going to be carved out for me—maybe playing 10, 12, 15 plays a game. I’m a rhythm player. I need to set people up, I need to be in the flow of the game. If I sit on the bench for three series, I can’t get rhythm, and I’ll get cold and maybe I’ll hurt myself. Some people think that’s great—play less and you won’t get hurt. Man, I want to play ball. In Philadelphia, it didn’t seem there was much of a chance to compete there. But they were honest with me the whole time. I appreciate the honesty. I’ll always love Philadelphia and the Eagles, but I didn’t want Week 4, 5, to come around and people think, Whoa, where’s Chris? Did Chris retire? I’d rather do it this way than just fade out. And I didn’t want to start over again across the country somewhere.

“I learned so much in my career. Getting drafted second overall, and going to St. Louis, and the fact that we were losing, I just thought, I am not gonna fold. I am not a loser. I am gonna be a bright spot. I am gonna give these fans, who I deeply appreciate for their dedication, the respect they deserve . Anyone playing in that era in St. Louis knows how bad it was at times. It was carnage, in so many ways. It was a test of my will. Do I get irritated by the no-Pro Bowl thing, never making a Pro Bowl? Yeah, I do. Fifty sacks in the first six years, with no one watching, on a bad team. I just felt the narrative should be, That kid panned out. But that’s okay—it was a labor of love. I have zero regrets.

“In New England, I learned so much about football. I always thought I was a smart player, even though I never thought about anything but the six inches in front of my face. In New England, I was forced to learn so many schematic concepts. In my career playing football, nobody asked me to do as much as Bill Belichick did. I might be 3-technique, or a linebacker, or a linebacker dropping into coverage more than ever, or playing inside more than ever. I’ll always remember how much I learned watching Bill in practice. He can coach any position as good as any position coach in league. He can walk around the field and stop drills and coach each position—at the highest level. And the quality of the dudes. Solid men. The right kind of people.

“Tom Brady blew me away. Who’s the most famous athlete of our generation: Tom Brady? LeBron? Messi? Ronaldo? Serena Williams? Maybe I haven’t been around enough to know how the biggest stars really act. But Brady is a normal guy. When I got there, here comes Tom. ‘Hey Chris, I’m Tom, nice to meet you.’ Well, yeah, I know you’re Tom. A lot of people want to hate him for all the success, and I understand how you can dislike the Patriots, but I cannot understand how you can dislike Tom.

“That Super Bowl against Atlanta … when we were way behind, I’m thinking, ‘I waited my whole life to be here, and this is a nightmare. This is the worst nightmare I have ever had.’ If we lost that night, I very possibly would have retired a bitter man. But winning it breathed life into me.

“Going to Philadelphia, I felt I found a home. Best sports city in America. But how different my situation was. I went from team captain with the Rams two years before that to winning the Super Bowl in New England to starting on the bottom in Philly. I was an average Joe. I was challenged. I learned how much being a team, being together, really means. We were a case study for whatever you believe. Either we were an anomaly or we proved you could do good things and win in pro sports. We happened to have guys who were good players who cared. I remember winning a Monday Night Football game, falling asleep at 4 or 5 o’clock, and waking up for a train to Harrisburg to work with state legislators on policies. It just showed how much we could make changes in things that matter, and play really good football too. You can be a football player and a citizen. It’s gratifying when young players come up and say they’re inspired to do more because of things that Malcolm Jenkins or Torrey Smith have done, or me.

“I’ve always tried to be me first and a football player second. When I came into football, I didn’t want to be this piece of wreckage who couldn’t move or have a normal life. But I learned you can’t predict the future. I thought I’d play eight years. I thought I’d retire at 30. But I played 11, and now I’m 34.

“NFL Man of the Year … I never felt deserving of it. I am not the best person in the NFL. I never want to get up there promoting myself as some infallible person. I was very honored. But I was also conflicted that people saw me as this community service guy, not a player. Nobody saw me as the player I was in my prime. I don’t want to be known as Community Service Guy; I want to be known as a guy who busted his ass for 11 years at his craft. But I do appreciate the fact that people saw that I played for free for one year, that I was part of a group that built 61 wells for people to get fresh water in Africa, and that we’ve got 220,000 people drinking from our wells. I will not downplay that stuff. But I am not some angel, believe me. I don’t have a brand. My brand is me.

“Retirement is interesting. It is something I feared for a long time. It is an existential crisis. I’ve been doing something since high school, working toward a goal. I fantasize about crossing the threshold, but at the same time it’s something you can be deathly afraid of.

“I am excited about the next phase of life. I’m launching a digital media company. I will have my own pod. I’m just excited about being able to control the narrative. I like to create. Maybe I’ll work at a network. Whatever I do, I’ll be me.”

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