Robert Kraft Deserves Some Deflategate Blame
Patriots fans who have been spewing their venom toward Roger Goodell over the last several months should save some bile for one of the best owners in professional sports.
Robert Kraft is responsible for keeping the Patriots in Foxborough, erecting the privately funded Gillette Stadium and hiring Bill Belichick—which has led to an unparalleled 15-year dynastic run in the salary cap era.
But Kraft has also arguably been Goodell’s biggest public advocate, and that is the ultimate inconvenient truth.
Few owners are more influential than Kraft. He sits on five league committees and has his hand in almost every aspect of the NFL’s estimated $12 billion operation. When the lockout in 2011 spanned into its fourth month, Kraft helped broker a deal between the players and owners—even while caring for his wife Myra, who died of cancer five days before the lockout ended.
Kraft is a kingpin, and when kingpins speak, people listen. He’s talking tough on Goodell and the league office now, but it’s too late. Kraft has already helped build a monster.
In the wake of the Ray Rice scandal, Kraft fiercely advocated for Goodell’s integrity. He praised the commissioner on national television one day after TMZ Sports released the video of Rice knocking out his then-fiancee in an elevator, even though the halfback had originally only been suspended a mere two games for the incident.
“The way he’s handled this situation himself, coming out with the mea culpa in his statement a couple of weeks ago, or 10 days ago, and setting a very clear policy how we conduct ourselves in the NFL, I thought was excellent,” Kraft said to CBS’s Charlie Rose. “Anyone who’s second-guessing that doesn’t know him.”
Goodell was at a tipping point last fall, and Kraft helped keep him afloat. As GQ’s Gabriel Sherman wrote in a January feature story on Goodell’s reign as NFL boss, Kraft personally persuaded other owners to back the commissioner in the aftermath of the Rice video leak. Kraft was so close to Goodell at the time that one NFL executive whom Sherman quotes says he likes to refer to him as the “assistant commissioner.”
It would appear that Kraft’s relationship with Goodell and the league office has deteriorated as Deflategate has dragged on. Kraft tossed the NFL an olive branch in May when he accepted the harshest punishment in league history over slightly deflated footballs, but then lashed out when Goodell announced last month he would uphold Tom Brady’s four-game suspension.
“I was wrong to put my faith in the league,” Kraft said at an impromptu press conference on the first day of training camp.
But up until Deflategate, Kraft supported Goodell whenever he exerted his outrageous style of kangaroo court discipline on other teams and players. When Goodell banished Saints head coach Sean Payton for one year and suspended four players over an alleged bounty scandal that the league appeared to grossly exaggerate, Kraft told the New York Times, “I think it’s good that every mother in America knows that the NFL is more concerned about the health and welfare and safety of our players.”
Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, whom Goodell appointed as an arbiter in Bountygate, later vacated all player suspensions.
Bountygate was one year before the NFL originally settled the lawsuit with the more than 5,000 ex-players who accused the league of hiding the dangers of head injuries and concussions from them. Kraft said the $765 million settlement, which a judge rejected in 2014 because she was concerned it wasn’t substantial enough, showed “great leadership” from Goodell. (A judge approved a new settlement between the league and the players in April.)
Whether Goodell and those who work below him were mangling the handling of a domestic violence crisis, abusing their disciplinary powers, or trying to beat ruined ex-players in court, Kraft defended the Shield.
But now the Shield has turned on him. Comeuppance sure has a bitter taste.