Putin, Trump and Patriotic Anger at Super Bowl 51

1:03 | The MMQB
The start of Bill Belichick's football life
Thursday February 2nd, 2017

HOUSTON — On Monday night, as the Patriots’ Super Bowl media day session came to a close, I found team president Jonathan Kraft, the son of the owner, and asked him to tell the Vladimir Putin story again. Since Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady are all friends with Donald Trump, and since the President has been linked to Putin—allegedly before the election and certainly after (they spoke last Saturday)—I figured now would be a good time to re-hear it.

“Oh, that’s a good story,” the younger Kraft said, smiling.

In the summer of 2005, Robert Kraft traveled to Russia as part of a caravan organized by Sandy Weill, a family friend who was the president of Citi Group at the time. Weill invited Kraft and about a half-dozen other business leaders, including Rupert Murdoch, to sit in on some meetings. “[Weill] did a lot of business over there,” Jonathan Kraft explained.

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During one meeting with Putin, Weill asked Robert Kraft to show the Russian president his newest Super Bowl ring. The Patriots had recently won their third championship in four years, and the rings were about a week old. Kraft’s ring, decorated with 124 diamonds, weighed more than four ounces and cost about $25,000. He hadn’t been wearing it, but carried it in his jacket pocket.

Kraft took out the ring. Putin put it on and admired it.

“I could kill somebody with this ring,” he told Kraft.

“Mr. President, you’re a black belt in karate,” Kraft shot back, “I don’t think you need the ring to kill anybody.”

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

The photo-op ended, the event broke off, and they all said their goodbyes. Then Putin took off the ring, pocketed it and walked away surrounded by three KGB guards. Kraft was shocked. He called his son and said, “You’re not going to believe what just happened!”

The Russian media reported the incident, and word quickly spread back home stateside. Wanting to avoid an international incident, George W. Bush’s White House reached out to Kraft and convinced him to act as if the ring had been a gift. Kraft quickly released a statement, saying he found Putin to be a knowledgeable sports fan and realized how much Putin liked the ring. “At that point, I decided to give him the ring as a symbol of the respect and admiration that I have for the Russian people,” Kraft wrote. “… I have ancestors from Russia, so it added significance for me to know that something so cherished would reside at the Kremlin along with other special gifts given to Russian presidents.”

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The story went away, until 2013, when Kraft re-told it at an awards event in New York. Kraft had been telling the real story among friends for years at dinner parties, but he had since decided that he had an emotional attachment to the ring and wanted it back.

At an annual economic forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, someone asked Putin about the story. “You know,” he reportedly said, “I remember neither Mr. Kraft nor the ring.”

“If it is such a valuable thing for Kraft and his team, then I have a proposal,” Putin reportedly said. “I’ll ask our firms to put together a really good, big thing, so everyone will see what an expensive thing it is, with good metal and a stone, so it will be passed from generation to generation in the team…”

More than three years later, Putin still hasn’t sent that “really good, big thing.”

Kraft never did get that ring back.

* * *

Speaking of Trump…

During Roger Goodell’s annual State of the NFL address on Wednesday afternoon, Ken Belson, a writer for The New York Times, asked where the league stood on Donald Trump’s temporary travel ban against immigrants from seven Muslim majority countries, which has sparked protests across the country.

“I can’t, you know, we’re aware of the conversation that’s going on and the division,” Goodell said. “As commissioner of the NFL, I’m singularly focused on the Super Bowl.” After that, Goodell went on about the Super Bowl bringing people together and providing entertainment. It was a milquetoast answer on an issue that’s affecting a lot of people and roiling the nation.

Roger Goodell addresses the media at Super Bowl 51 in Houston.
Jim Davis/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

It reminded me of something Martellus Bennett had said a few days prior, when a reporter asked him why more players don’t speak out like he does.

“Other players are worried about their personal brands,” Bennett said. “I feel like a lot of players, in a lot of situations, really have a chance to impact the community with things that they say. So many people are looking to them for encouragement, for an example, for a chance to promote change. But for a lot of guys it comes down to the dollar, what this brand or what this company may say. Or how am I going to look if I speak out? Sometimes a lot of guys just aren’t educated enough to do it. They don’t know the subjects. I mean, it varies. But the biggest thing is, they don’t want to step out on that plank because they feel like they’ll get crucified if they do speak up on different matters.”

“It frustrates me,” Bennett added, “because when you have a chance to change the world, you [should] change the world. You know what I’m saying? It’s not like, oh, here’s my chance to change the world—I’m going to pass that up. If I have a chance to change the world, I’m going to do everything I can to change the world.”

Roger Goodell, the son of a U.S. senator who staked his political career by opposing the Vietnam War, missed his chance.

New England Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett addresses the media in Houston.
Bob Levey/Getty Images

* * *

Where Have You Gone Roger Goodell?

If you haven’t seen it, this press conference is quite the event. This year the league held it in a ballroom in the convention center, and the NFL set up several hundred chairs and played background music that sounded like something from Star Wars. It felt as if we were waiting for a show to start, not a press conference. Even the reporters felt like part of the show, because, since they may only get one question in, many of them wrote out what they would ask. When it was their turn, they would stand at their seat and read it aloud.

About 13 minutes in, Dan Shaughnessy took the microphone.

“Uh, Roger, Dan Shaughnessy of The Boston Globe. Tom Brady Sr. was highly critical and personally insulting toward you last week. You have not been in Foxborough for two years since the Deflategate investigation. Your explanation strains all credibility, the need to be in Atlanta two weeks in a row. It appears you’re avoiding Foxborough. The Patriots are here [in Houston], but back home where I live it feels like there’s still a war between the Patriots, their fans, and you. How would you characterize the situation? And is it not awkward?”

Goodell denied it, but yes, it did seem a bit awkward.

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