Commissioners of sports leagues are employed by the team owners they oversee. And that can make for a sticky wicket when an owner runs afoul of the law, and the boss suddenly finds himself in the awkward position of having to discipline one of his bosses. National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell has dealt with this complicated dynamic before, but this latest situation may be trickier to navigate than previous ones.
See, the bad boy in this scenario is none other than Robert Kraft, who’s not only the most successful and highest profile owner in all of sports, but also a guy who has been a friend and occasional adversary of Goodell’s, and a guy who has a humungous say in the commissioner’s humungous salary. Can you say conflict of interest? The players union certainly can.
Just three weeks after Kraft hoisted a sixth Lombardi Trophy amid the post-Super Bowl confetti celebration in Atlanta, news broke that the New England Patriots boss had been charged with two counts of soliciting sex as part of a wide-ranging investigation into prostitution and human trafficking in Florida. The police used video surveillance that showed the 77-year-old Kraft inside a massage parlor that, police said, was used for selling sex.
In a statement, the Patriots “categorically” denied that Kraft engaged in any illegal activity. The misdemeanor charges carry fines and a maximum of 60 days in jail for a first offense and one year for a second offense. The charges could wind up being dropped, as they occasionally are in these types of cases. Or Kraft may settle out of court in order to avoid dragging himself through a tawdry, circus-like trial that surely would make the Twitterverse go nuclear. The fines the billionaire may incur would constitute chump change. But there’s no amount of money that can remove this stain from his reputation.
Regardless the legal outcome, there will be pressure on Goodell—who serves not only as commissioner, but also as judge, jury and executioner—to discipline a person who is arguably the NFL’s biggest powerbroker and one of the commissioner’s biggest allies.
Yes, the two men’s relationship became strained during the Spygate scandal in which the Patriots were found guilty of attempting to steal opponents’ sideline signals, and the Deflategate scandal in which millions of dollars in legal fees were wasted on a silly debate over whether the inflation levels of the footballs used by Tom Brady gave the quarterback an unfair advantage. After the Patriots were fined and docked a first-round draft pick and after Brady served a four-game suspension, Goodell and Kraft patched things up and became close business partners again. According to multiple media reports, Goodell leaned heavily on Kraft’s connections with President Donald Trump to seal a deal that allowed Canadian broadcasters to sell their own Super Bowl television ads, thereby pumping millions more into the NFL’s already robust coffers.
There is precedent here—and not only with how Goodell handled Deflategate and Spygate. In 2014, he fined Jim Irsay $500,000 and suspended him for six games after the Indianapolis Colts owner was charged with driving while impaired. And a few years later, after an exhaustive Sports Illustrated investigation uncovered claims that Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson had sexually harassed employees for years, Goodell fined him $2.75 million and forced him to sell the team. It was a bold move. Not unlike ones taken by various Major League Baseball commissioners against New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner (for illegal campaign contributions and for the hiring of a gambler to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield) and National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver, who made Donald Sterling sell the Los Angeles Clippers following numerous racist remarks.
Kraft’s crimes don’t rise to a level that would prompt the NFL to force him to sell the Patriots. But there will be tension to do something, because the ultra-image-conscious league has struggled mightily in recent years to shake a reputation that its players, employees and owners treat women poorly. After initially bungling domestic violence cases involving players, Goodell finally began using his wide-ranging powers to dole out hefty suspensions and fines.
The immense collateral Kraft has accrued undoubtedly will factor into Goodell’s decision. In addition to playing important roles in ending lockouts and maximizing league revenues and franchise values, Kraft has been one of his sport’s most generous philanthropists. Interestingly, his donations included a $1.6-million contribution to organizations combatting domestic violence and sex trafficking four years ago. It’s unlikely, but Goodell could opt to fine Kraft a maximum of $500,000 and suspend him for several games, as he did with Irsay. He also could refer the matter to the entire group of owners, and they could impose additional penalties, though legal experts say that is highly unlikely.
Again, a half-million dollars would be nothing to Kraft, but the suspension would hit him where it hurts because he absolutely adores the spotlight. And it would deny him the opportunity to participate in a sixth Super Bowl banner-raising ceremony in Foxboro, Mass. at the start of the 2019 season. Hugh Culverhouse Jr., a federal criminal lawyer whose father once owned the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, told the New York Times recently that Kraft, “essentially could be sanctioned for bad taste. It will come down to embarrassment.’’
It should be noted that Kraft sits on the NFL’s compensation committee, which determines the size of Goodell’s sizeable paycheck, ($40 million per year, according to Forbes magazine.)
Just another reason this dynamic of a boss having to boss his bosses can be very, very interesting.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.