Robert Kraft's arrest is a chance for Roger Goodell to show the NFL is serious about its morality policies

If the NFL is the moral arbiter of marijuana, violence against women and patriotism, it can take a firm stance against sex trafficking.
Image: Robert Kraft Roger Goodell
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft talks with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, Mexico on on Nov. 19, 2017.Buda Mendes / Getty Images file
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By Kavitha A. Davidson

The implications on football of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft being charged with two counts of soliciting prostitution pale in comparison to what happened to these women.

Kraft, prosecutors say, was participating in a sex trafficking ring and, according to local police, they have video of Kraft and dozens of other men engaging in sex acts at massage parlors in south Florida with women who speak no English, had little access to basic sanitary facilities and were forced to “have unprotected sex with 15 men a day, seven days a week, with no days off.”

Most importantly, there is the hope that the ongoing investigations that bring the victims in this case closer to safety.

Still, we have to wonder how the NFL will act in response to these allegations against the owner of the most successful football team in recent memory, let alone a man who boasts power and influence that extends beyond the gridiron. (Kraft is a stated supporter of the president and donated $1 million to his inauguration.)

The NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, has said that he acts in service of “protecting the shield,” which ostensibly translates to protecting the interests of the league’s image and ownership groups. That should lead to swift sanctions of Kraft if the allegations are true

If Goodell makes good on his past word to hold owners to a “higher standard” under the league’s personal conduct policy, and if past precedent is any indication, Kraft could be facing (at minimum) a six-game suspension and a $500,000 penalty. That’s what’s stated under the policy and was levied against Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay in 2014, following his arrest for driving while intoxicated and possession of controlled substances.

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But that was a relatively light punishment, especially compared to players penalized for substance abuse — and Irsay’s well-known history of drug problems and the fact that a woman was found dead of an overdose in a townhouse he owned two weeks before his arrest. At the time, Goodell justified the sanctions by saying Irsay’s “conduct did not have competitive consequence.”

“I have stated on numerous occasions that owners, management personnel and coaches must be held to a higher standard than players,” Goodell said in a statement at the time of Irsay’s suspension. “We discussed this during our meeting and you [Irsay] expressed your support for that view, volunteering that owners should be held to the highest standard.”

How that will translate to Goodell’s response to the charges against Kraft — currently two counts of misdemeanors for solicitation — will reflect how much power the commissioner wields against one of the most powerful men in the NFL who also has an open ear in the White House.

The biggest question is whether the league will adhere to the minimal standard Goodell set in 2014, which has at times been unevenly applied to players who’ve also been charged with violent acts against women. Goodell is, of course, no friend of Kraft’s: He’s investigated the Patriots numerous times for spying on opposing teams and, of course, using intentionally deflated footballs.

And, it’s fair to call for a much harsher sanction against Kraft than was levied against Irsay: Five years later, the league should have matured enough to recognize that participating in a sex trafficking ring has no place in the NFL.

There are a lot of factors yet to play out here, not the least of which is the ongoing criminal investigation into the scope of the sex trafficking ring Kraft was patronizing. As it stands, law enforcement — including Homeland Security and the IRS — have exposed 10 illicit massage parlors in Orange, Indian River and Martin Counties. In a press conference, Snyder and other officials, including the Florida Attorney General, were very careful to note that there are more parlors involved. It’s entirely possible that new charges could be filed.

Regardless of the eventual outcome in the investigation in general or Kraft’s case in particular, this is an opportunity for the NFL to live up to the moral standard it touts so fervently. Sports writer Jane McManus called on Sautrday for the NFL to ban Kraft from the league if the allegations are true, noting that this is just the latest in a long list of NFL offenses against women, including Irsay’s actions, sexual harassment by other owners, and the mistreatment of cheerleaders.

Sex trafficking is yet another instance of violence against women that can’t be overstated nor overlooked, especially in a league where the mistreatment of women is a feature, not a bug. The women in these parlors patronized by Kraft were held against their will, coerced and forced into sex work, and given no opportunity to escape. Their traffickers were paid and enabled, in part, by wealthy and powerful men. (ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports that Kraft’s isn’t even the “biggest name involved” in this scandal.)

The league will likely wait until more information becomes public to make any decision. “The NFL is aware of the ongoing law enforcement matter and will continue to monitor developments," the league said in statement. While it’s important to wait until all the facts are known, the NFL does have a history of hiding behind law enforcement.

Before the public backlash to Ray Rice’s initial suspension for domestic violence, the NFL deferred to the courts before deciding on its own punishment. A criminal conviction was deemed essentially necessary for the league to take any action. In the years since, the league amended its personal conduct policy to appear more stringent, stating that NFL justice acts separately from criminal justice, with the league conducting its own independent investigations.

That reformation was mostly a PR move to appease the public, after the backlash to its prior handling of domestic violence and sexual assault allegations against players. Even then, a major debate between the NFL and its players union was over whether Goodell should have sole authority to levy punishment and, without input from the union, the owners initially voted against an independent arbitrator, allowing any final punishment decision to rest in the commissioner’s hands.

Goodell is “the one person that understands what’s important, long-term interests of the game,” Kraft said at the time.

Here’s an opportunity for Goodell to live up to that promise, by appropriately punishing Kraft. The league has positioned itself in part on public trust, and if the NFL really wants to be the moral arbiter of everything from smoking pot to violence against women to patriotism to touchdown dances to hand gestures, then surely the league can take a firm stance against sex trafficking.

If the league truly holds itself and its owners to a “higher standard,” then there shouldn’t be exceptions for an owner that just happens to be as broadly powerful as Kraft. And if the commissioner actually understands what’s important, he won’t back down on this.