Typically, the NFL’s annual meetings are the perfect place for a team owner with fresh championship hardware to take a bow before his peers for a job well-done.
When owners gather this weekend at the swanky Arizona Biltmore resort, however, it will be anything but business as usual for New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
Rather than a been-there, done-that victory lap for a six-time Super Bowl winner, the symbolism of Kraft’s presence at meetings that begin on Sunday reflects another big NFL Morality Check.
The Patriots owner, facing two charges of solicitation of prostitution stemming from two visits to a Jupiter, Florida, day spa the weekend of the AFC Championship game, is poised to attend the league meetings despite his ongoing legal matters. Kraft has denied engaging in any illegal activity after charges were levied against him in February as part of a larger sting operation that resulted in the arrests of dozens of alleged perpetrators.
A person with knowledge of Kraft’s plans — who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue — told USA TODAY Sports that the owner will engage in league matters while attempting to avoid being a distraction.
The latter task is a tall order, but evidently Kraft, 77, tried to get in front of the issue before heading to Arizona by releasing a mea culpa statement on Saturday.
“I am truly sorry,” Kraft said in the statement. “I know I have hurt and disappointed my family, my close friends, my co-workers, our fans and many others who rightfully hold me to a higher standard.”
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Nice try, Robert. In his statement, which the widowed Kraft maintained he wanted to publicly address for weeks, he pledged to use his platform to try to make a difference.
In this case, his involvement in the scandal has certainly brought millions of dollars’ worth of attention to the cause of combating prostitution and human trafficking – with its supply-and-demand factor tied to sexual solicitation.
With his well-timed statement, it’s expected that the generally affable Kraft won’t hold court with the media as he usually does during the meetings to address team and league issues – although it’s still possible he will make a statement on camera similar to the written statement, without taking questions.
Questions like: What were you doing there in the first place? Why not have such massage services delivered? What, specifically, will you do with your platform to make a difference?
Instead, it’s expected that he will operate under a self-imposed gag order when it comes to his legal issue – hoping to not be the distraction that realistically, he can only hope to minimize.
But just because he won’t face the media spotlight doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t address the issue with fellow owners and commissioner Roger Goodell, who will ultimately have to determine the level of discipline that will be imposed under the NFL’s personal conduct policy (which theoretically calls for a higher standard for owners and management).
Kraft’s matter is not on the official agenda for the meetings, a person with knowledge of the situation told USA Today Sports under the condition of anonymity, given that it is still being adjudicated. But it would not be unprecedented if he still took the floor to address other owners.
That’s what Browns owner Jimmy Haslam did in 2013, shortly after he joined the exclusive NFL ownership club and found his primary, family-owned operation, Pilot Flying J, embroiled in a massive federal case that revolved around cheating customers (which did not directly involve Haslam). And after Jerry Richardson sold the Carolina Panthers to David Tepper in 2018 following revelations of alleged workplace misconduct that was sexual and racial in nature, he addressed the owners – even to the point, one NFL owner told USA Today Sports, of apologizing for not selling for more than the $2.2 billion price.
It would be a good idea for Kraft to explain a few things to his partners, with whom he has established much personal and professional equity. At the minimum, you’d expect that he could engage in some intimate discussions with fellow owners. But talking to the group could be more powerful.
Here’s what one owner said about Haslam’s speech to the NFL owners in 2013:
“I know he feels a sense of embarrassment. He said they’re going to do everything they can to get it under control and put it behind them, and that he felt bad for the attention that it brought to the Cleveland franchise and the NFL, and he was going to make it right.”
The owner who had that reaction? Kraft. Now he is positioned to make a similar statement behind closed doors.
Regardless, he’s the elephant in the room. Kraft won’t be able to completely squash the seedy subplot that looms over the meetings for a league that suddenly has another layer of embarrassing egg on its face. This follows the officiating debacle in the NFC title game, the blackballing of Colin Kaepernick, a series of domestic violence incidents, the concussion conundrum and so on.
Whether Kraft came to Arizona or not, his situation – which put one of the most visible influencers in the NFL on full blast and took the PR-conscious league with him, crossing over to headline national news coverage for a few days in February – should make the other owners take stock of damage to a brand that likes to sell itself as being so invested in public trust.
And, of course, it adds another action item for the oft-embattled Goodell.
What will it be, Roger? A six-game suspension, which Colts owner Jim Irsay received in 2014 after pleading guilty to operating a vehicle while intoxicated, seems to be the baseline for putting such a stain on the image of The Shield. With a six-game suspension, Kraft wouldn’t be allowed to raise the championship banner at Gillette Stadium when the Patriots christen the season with a Thursday night prime-time game. Irsay was also fined $500,000, but the record is $1 million – against Kraft’s Patriots from Deflategate. That matched what former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo was docked in 1999 after he pleaded guilty to a felony charge stemming from a Louisiana gambling scheme.
Maybe Goodell will go for another record, and if Kraft is found guilty, fine him $500,000 for each charge. If Kraft is exonerated, it would depend on the circumstances, but in the Court of Goodell (hello, NFLPA), Kraft will probably be on the big financial hook for, well, damaging that precious image.
These upcoming meetings are hardly all about Kraft. Owners have another hot-button officiating issue on their hands with the potential of expanding instant replay. (Memo to owners: You’re blowing it by not instituting a “Sky Judge” as means to uphold the integrity of the game as legalized gambling spreads.) And there are the usual business items that can add more billions of dollars in revenues.
Yet the Kraft issue hovers over these meetings like the Goodyear blimp.
With his lawyers contending that video evidence claimed by prosecutors was obtained illegally, perhaps Kraft can win his case on a technicality.
In that case, barring some monumental mistaken identity, there’s still no victory. He still loses, given the nature of this embarrassing saga. As does the NFL.