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Robert Kraft, Roger Goodell and the NFL’s Discipline Double Standard

If a player had been busted in a prostitution sting that may have involved human trafficking, you’d bet the league’s response would be swift and serious. With an owner ... ?

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a perfectly serviceable offensive lineman currently employed by an NFL franchise. Not an All-Pro, but a fine journeyman hunk of hostility. (If it helps, take a moment and remove all the cartilage from your right knee. I’ll wait.) So, on the morning of the conference championship game, you decide you need to relax. You drive to a nondescript strip mall somewhere in Florida, wherein you pay some ladies who may or may not be willing employees to help you relax in the oldest possible ways. (Hey, kids read this column. I’m doing what I can here.) A month or so later, after your team has won the Super Bowl, the FBI comes rap-tap-tapping at your door and you find yourself hauled off to the sneezer because the establishment in which you sought relief is alleged to be part of an international human-trafficking ring in addition to its being a maison de joie.

Think about it. How long would it take before Roger Goodell took action against you for sullying The Shield in such a lubricious (and tacky) way? He would land on you with both loafers. He’d throw the whole prospectus at you. At the very least, you’d probably end up watching at least a couple of games of the 2019 season at home on television. This is because you are merely a perfectly serviceable offensive lineman and not an owner.

This is precisely what happened to Robert Kraft, the owner of the Super Bowl-champion New England Patriots. On February 25, Kraft was charged with solicitation of prostitution at a place called Orchids of Asia day spa in Jupiter, Fla. It was alleged by prosecutors that Kraft visited the spa twice between January 18 and January 22. There is also said to be video, about which nothing further need be said. But Kraft’s embarrassment was compounded when it was revealed that the bust at Orchids was part of a massive, multi-jurisdictional investigation into human-trafficking that has resulted in dozens of arrests and which investigators say extended from Florida to New York and China. Tens of millions of dollars allegedly changed hands, and very few if any of those ended up in the hands of the women doing the “work.” The circumstances were, of course, horrible, as Bob Hohler of the Boston Globe reported.

Investigators have brought in Mandarin translators, and one woman is cooperating in helping authorities understand what pushed them into such conditions, including whether they owed significant debts to simply get to the United States. The woman were allegedly coerced into seeing anywhere from seven to 15 men by day, and at night they remained sequestered at the small spas, in many cases only leaving one establishment to be shuttled to another, Martin County Sheriff William Snyder said. Jupiter police told reporters it appeared customers paid $59 for a half-hour and $79 for an hour. “We’ve done around-the-clock surveillance, and they never leave,” Snyder said of the women. “They are squatting at the back door, cooking on a hot plate. There’s no washing machines or dryers. There’s no transportation.”

Robert Kraft, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him, is alleged to be the last stop in a deeply inhuman human supply-chain. He is alleged to be complicit in a dark form of commodified humanity, even darker than the brutal commodification of humanity in which he works in his day job. This at least should have required some public fuming from the office of a commissioner who suspended Kraft’s quarterback for four games for conspiring with the laws of physics to win a game by 38 points. But that is not the way The Shield is protected, at least not at the moment.

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The first time I can recall that a commissioner dropped the hammer on NFL personnel came in 1963, when Pete Rozelle suspended Alex Karras of the Lions and Paul Hornung of the Packers for the season for gambling. (The amounts of the bets in question ran from $100 to $500, boutonniere money for Pete Rose, but it was a more innocent time.) It came as a great shock because there was something atavistic about the bust. Of course, the most famous episode in this regard was when Kenesaw Mountain Landis cleaned out the Black Sox in 1921. But that was long before the spectacle sports married themselves to the respectable corporate class through the respectable electronic media. Karras and Hornung got caught right when that process was beginning because that process is one of Rozelle’s most lasting legacies in American sport. The NFL became the darling of television and the darling of corporate America almost simultaneously. Thus was The Shield born as something to be protected at just about any cost.

Since taking office in 2006, Goodell has levied 12 suspensions. He suspended Adam (Pacman) Jones for a shootout in a strip club that ended up in gunplay. He suspended Adrian Peterson for beating his child. He suspended a whole chunk of the New Orleans Saints depth chart, including the head coach, for the Bountygate scandal. And he’s bungled his way through Deflategate and, worse, through a number of incidents of domestic violence. To be entirely fair, Goodell has disciplined a number of owners, as well—Jerry Richardson of the Panthers for sexual harassment in the workplace; Tom Benson of New Orleans for the Bountygate deal, and Jim Irsay of the Colts for driving around the suburbs of Indianapolis with an entire pharmaceutical outlet in the back seat of his car. And, of course, he has fined Kraft’s Patriots twice—once for the Spygate business in 2007 and again in 2014 for Deflategate. The latter episode poisoned what had been a close relationship between Kraft and Goodell.

So, what does he do now?

There is no question that Kraft’s involvement, however minor, in this alleged international criminal conspiracy puts a dent in The Shield. The guy owns the most significant franchise of the 21st century, and he’s the custodian of one of professional sports’ most impressive dynasties. His quarterback is arguably the greatest of all time, and his coach isn’t far behind that. According to the annual Forbes ranking, the New England Patriots are worth $3.8 billion-with-a-B and are reckoned to be the second-most valuable franchise in the league. More important, Kraft has been a substantial power player in the institutional structure of the NFL. By comparison, Jerry Richardson and Jim Irsay are minor players.

Further, this event highlights once again the NFL’s problematic relationship with the 51 percent of the American population that happens to be female. Its response to domestic violence perpetrated by NFL players has been bizarre, when it hasn’t been dilatory, when it hasn’t been apathetic. And those are easy cases. Sometimes there’s even been video. If the NFL was unprepared to deal with cases of domestic violence captured on video and dispensed over the Internet, is there any reason to believe that its any more prepared to confront the involvement of its owners and players in the insidious and complicated forms of violence that make up human trafficking?

There is no question that forced prostitution also is an act of violence against women. The United Nations Human Rights Commission recognizes it as such. So does common sense. It is part of a thriving 21st century slave economy and, like any economy, its supply is driven by demand, and now Bob Kraft is alleged to be part of that demand. But it’s obvious that the old-boy network that still exists within the greater community of the NFL and its most fervent adherents is unable to make the connection between the two forms of violence. All the “rub and tug” jokes are a form of denial that seeks to minimize Kraft’s alleged complicity in the acts of violence essential to a successful human-trafficking operation like the one investigators believe they broke up. This form of violence is as essential to human-trafficking as physical violence is essential to professional football. The only difference is that the latter is voluntary.

If the charges against Bob Kraft are proven to be true, then Goodell should bestir himself to punish the Patriots owner severely, and with something beyond a fine. He’s already heavily fined the Patriots for their two -gate scandals. If the charges are proven true, Kraft’s influence and involvement in the business of the league should be minimized, if not entirely eliminated. It can be argued that he should be suspended from the operation of his franchise, at least for a season. Goodell essentially forced Jerry Richardson to sell the Panthers for abusing the women in his employ. In that context, what Kraft is alleged to have done is simply to have outsourced the abuse of women to a shadowy international criminal cabal. There are better things to do at the average Florida strip mall. He would’ve been better off getting a tattoo.