Master Debater: NFL can't let Kraft talk his way out of punishment

Courtesy of U.S. Department of State

Courtesy of U.S. Department of State

Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots has been officially charged with two counts of first-degree solicitation of a prostitute after allegedly being caught on tape as a result of a six-month joint investigation conducted by various southern Florida police departments.

The investigation spanned across Orlando and Palm Beach, Florida, and along the Atlantic coast, resulting in the closure of 10 spas that housed victims of sex trafficking. In these spas, the police taped sessions between the victims and the buyers, and though Kraft is only one of many men on file for allegedly paying for sexual relations, his position as one of the most influential owners in the NFL makes his case especially concerning.

Kraft has denied any allegations thrown at him; his legal counsel said, “We categorically deny that Mr. Kraft engaged in any illegal activity. Because it is a judicial matter, we will not be commenting further.” Kraft also pleaded not guilty on Thursday, according to NBC News.

For the sake of clarity, the story is not that a 77-year-old man worth $6.6 billion paid for a sexual experience. The tragedy lies in the women who were promised a better life by their captors, only to become sex slaves, unwillingly averaging 1,500 partners a year.

Although Kraft was not a participant in sex trafficking, his mere presence in the Orchids of Asia Day Spa & Massage encouraged an industry that sexually exploits people. While his legal punishment consists of a maximum of one year in jail, a $5,000 fine and 100 hours of community service if convicted, Kraft might face punishment from two more courts, the court of Roger Goodell and the court of public opinion.

Owners “have traditionally been held to a higher standard and will be subject to more significant discipline,” the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy warns. Previous cases involving owners and violations of the policy include Jim Irsay of the Indianapolis Colts and Jerry Richardson, formerly of the Carolina Panthers. Irsay was arrested on four counts of possession of a controlled substance and driving while intoxicated in March of 2014.

While Irsay pled guilty to DUI and was sentenced to a year probation, Goodell fined Irsay the maximum amount allowed by the NFL constitution of $500,000 and suspended him for six games, in accordance with the personal conduct policy.

Richardson was found to have sexually harassed female employees repeatedly and orchestrated multiple payouts for the victims’ silence in a Sports Illustrated report two years ago. Richardson was later investigated by the NFL and fined roughly $2.8 million. However, Richardson sold the Panthers shortly after the harassment came to light to current owner David Tepper. These two situations help illustrate the power of Roger Goodell.

The commissioner has always picked and chosen his battles, and he has the ability to be a disciplinarian when he wants to be. However, the operative phrase is when he wants to be. Irsay has always been seen as a rogue owner — he walks to the beat of his own drum. Richardson was a virtual unknown whose atrocities were revealed in the height of the fight against sexual harassment in the workplace. Those fights were easy to wage because he had support. On the other hand, Kraft is well-liked, on several NFL committee including leading the media committee, a frequent philanthropist to different causes in and around New England, and acts as a virtual liaison between the NFL and the White House. He also owns a very successful team. In other words, Kraft has power and prestige. Although Goodell has fined Kraft and the Patriots previously, Goodell usually hesitates to do anything until it seems that the public demands it. While the public will be on his side to reprimand Kraft and hold him to the “higher standard” that the shield vaunts, at the end of the day, Goodell will not want to disrupt his salary and his reputation among the owners. Therefore, Kraft will most likely get a slap on the wrist. However, the court of public opinion might force him to do so much more than be flogged around for the people's sense of righteousness. He might have to sell the Patriots.

It’s crazy, but if Richardson, someone who committed sexual harassment, can receive so much backlash and negative press that he sells his biggest asset just to escape it, then Kraft could do the same if he faces the same animosity.

This is probably never going to happen, but that doesn't mean there isn't more damage that can be done. For Patriot haters, they can experience a brief moment of schadenfreude, deriving pleasure from the team’s sorrows, and be provided with another reason to hate the franchise. The women in the spas are still there, subject to horrors people can’t believe. While this story has brought the idea of sex trafficking into the sports world, this is a bigger problem than a disgraced NFL CEO.