Amid legal charges, Patriots' Robert Kraft was 'awkward' presence at NFL owners' meetings
PHOENIX — After concluding the NFL’s annual meetings this week with a monumental vote to expand the use of instant replay, a stream of team owners and other executives bolted from a conference center and made a beeline toward the lobby of the resort hotel where they were headquartered for several days.
As usual, several of them stopped and shared reactions with a swarm of media.
Yet amid the flood, there was one – embattled New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft – who inconspicuously veered away from the pack.
As one of the league’s most influential owners, Kraft typically would have been in the middle of the hubbub. This time, though, the gregarious patriarch of the Patriots slipped off to the side with his son, Jonathan, the team’s president, and connected with the franchise’s security director. They quickly hopped into a black SUV and drove off.
If you wondered how Kraft would follow through on his intent to minimize any distraction attached to the two pending misdemeanor charges in Florida for alleged solicitation of prostitution, it was a picture worth the proverbial thousand words.
Kraft, who issued an apology last weekend before arriving at the swanky Arizona Biltmore, didn’t utter a public word during the meetings and was largely out of sight. Beyond that, according to several NFL owners, he did not address his predicament to fellow owners during the meetings – as others under fire have in the past.
Despite such efforts to downplay his presence, Kraft was undoubtedly an elephant in the room, as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will ultimately determine possible punishment for the Patriots owner under the league’s personal conduct policy.
That’s why one team owner described Kraft’s situation as “awkward” against the backdrop of league business.
The four team owners who shared their views with USA TODAY about Kraft spoke on the condition of anonymity, given the sensitive nature of the case.
“I’m not going to judge,” one team owner told USA TODAY. “We all make mistakes.”
That team owner added that Kraft has been a good friend and loyal supporter for years. Such a viewpoint is not surprising, given the close circle that exists among the owners, partners in a business that generates more than $14 billion per year in revenues. Kraft has established much goodwill among his peers, with his impact reflected in part by his work as chairman of the broadcast committee, among roles elsewhere.
Another team owner maintained that in considering his contributions to the league, Kraft “deserves the benefit of the doubt.”
Sure, Kraft is innocent until proven guilty in a legal sense.
Yet this is another morality check for the NFL. Within a league that relies on public trust and goes to great lengths to promote its values – and contends that ownership is to be held to a "higher standard" under the conduct policy – the manner in which Kraft’s case has stained the NFL's reputation cannot be ignored.
“We talk about that every day when we are in here,” one owner said during a break in the meetings.
Kraft has pleaded not guilty and requested a jury trial, while his attorneys have tried to poke holes into the legality of how video evidence was obtained. But even if Kraft wins in court, getting a pass in the NFL universe is another matter.
Given the nature of the charges, Kraft’s case puts much pressure on Goodell – who in 2014 suspended Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay for six games after he pleaded guilty to operating a vehicle while intoxicated. In Irsay’s case, Goodell waited several months for the case to be adjudicated following the arrest. That approach seems appropriate … until weighed against the decisiveness with which Goodell suspended players such as Ezekiel Elliott (six games) and Kareem Hunt (eight games) for domestic violence and assault allegations that never resulted in any formal charges.
Higher standard? Goodell reiterated during a news conference this week that the personal conduct policy will be applied to Kraft “after we get all the facts, we have all the information, and we’ll be fair and smart about it.”
Two owners told USA TODAY they would not push for Goodell to rule on the Kraft case in any specific direction when considering harshness or leniency of discipline.
“It’s above my pay grade,” one owner contended.
Although the owners refused to address the matter publicly, all four insisted to USA TODAY that there was no “gag order” issued by Goodell – as he has demanded for other situations – regarding Kraft.
That Kraft didn’t address his fellow owners as a group was considered “strange” by one of them. Another owner maintained he didn’t expect Kraft to take the floor – at least not at this point, with his legal situation unresolved. It’s possible that Kraft could address the owners about the case at an upcoming meeting.
Kraft's request for a jury trial rather than a bench decision was deemed “risky” by one of the owners, but perhaps it was also an indication in his belief that he will legally clear his name. That owner added, however, that he could clearly sense Kraft’s determination to defend his case as he addressed the matter privately during a committee meeting with other owners in February, shortly after the charges were filed.
“I wasn’t even sure he’d be there,” the owner said, because it was, “hot off the presses.”
Now chances are strong that Kraft’s case will still be a hot topic at the next round of owners meetings in May – in South Florida, of all places.
Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.
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