This story appears in the May 11, 2015 issue of SI. To subscribe, click here.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft is renowned for his business acumen, both inside of football and in the larger corporate world. As he’s told me more than once, he believes one of the most important things a businessman must do is hire the right people. What makes someone “right”? In order: loyalty, integrity and character, followed by work ethic and intelligence.
Kraft in many ways made NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Kraft helped push through Goodell’s election in 2006. Five years later, Kraft left his ailing wife, Myra, to convince the players that Goodell, who was widely despised, and the league could be trusted in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement. Kraft helped promote and justify Goodell’s salary increase from $11.5 million before the 2011 lockout to an average of $37 million over the last two fiscal years. And in the wake of last year’s Ray Rice debacle, Goodell’s darkest hour, Kraft defended Goodell to the public and worked behind the scenes to make sure other owners remained loyal to the embattled commissioner.
For his part, Goodell, in the eyes of some, went easy on the Pats after Spygate (relative to subsequent infractions by other teams). In addition, as of 2010, the Patriots had generated the most complaints to the Competition Committee during the Bill Belichick era, and many team executives felt the issues raised were swept under the rug. Goodell has been a guest at Kraft’s home and charity events, and according to a story in GQ, Goodell relies so much on Kraft’s input that the latter is derisively called “the assistant commissioner” by one NFL executive.
Now comes the Goodell-commissioned Wells report, which implicates Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and other members of the organization in a scheme to under-inflate game balls. According to several people close to Kraft, the Pats’ owner sees the investigation and report as an act of disloyalty—the worst offense. They say that in Kraft’s mind the league came after Brady, who was suspended for four games on Monday, over a minor issue that’s not worthy of the time, money and effort poured into it.
The entire incident began when the Colts intercepted a ball in the first half of the AFC championship game and found it to have low pressure. After the Colts informed the league, all 11 of the Patriots’ balls were inspected and found to be below the allowable level. Patriots sources are steadfast—and their belief was conveyed to the league, according to a source—that Mike Kensil, the NFL’s VP of game operations, walked up to Patriots equipment manager Dave Schoenfeld on the sideline after halftime and said, “We weighed the balls. You are in big f------ trouble.” New England and Kraft thought this incident, and others, showed bias by the league and would be explored in the Wells report. But the Patriots’ theories (including another in which they believed the Colts deflated the intercepted ball) were tossed aside, with the report simply calling the sideline interaction a difference in recollection.
“I really don’t see how Robert is going to get past this with Roger,” says a source close to Kraft. “Robert was furious with the leaks and the investigation in the first place, but he figured they’d be exonerated. Now he’s out of his mind with anger.”
Will Kraft seek to have Goodell replaced? It’s possible, and we’ll know soon. As chairman of the NFL’s broadcasting committee, Kraft has to work more closely with Goodell than any other owner. After this season the NFL can opt out of its deal with CBS for Thursday-night games, which means a decision needs to be made soon. If Kraft steps away from the committee, Goodell could be in trouble. Kraft, in effect, would have signaled that he’s done putting the league ahead of his personal interest. There’s nothing more dear to him than the reputation of his football team and Brady, his biggest star.
Of course Kraft may put the perceived slight behind him. If he does, Goodell will have strengthened his position. Most of the other 31 ownership groups have long thought they play by one set of rules while, thanks to Kraft’s influence, the Patriots play by another. Some of that is rooted in jealousy over the Patriots’ four Super Bowl titles. But for Goodell, standing up to Kraft may save a career that once looked headed for ruin. In the end, Goodell may have realized that loyalty only gets you so far.