The NFL and football fans across the globe were rocked today by the news that New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, age 77, will be charged with two counts of soliciting prostitution. The charges resulted from a massive sting operation in Florida which has produced a total of 50 arrests so far and 200 warrants. Vero Beach Police Chief David Currey described an extensive prostitution and human trafficking ring involving at least three spas in which women were held in apparent captivity. Perry Russom of NBC10 Boston reports, ” Martin County Sheriff says the women involved in human trafficking ring were given no days off. They averaged about 1,500 men a year. ” Russom further elaborates that the women had little hygiene.
According to Jupiter Police Chief Daniel Kerr, video evidence is the basis for the arrest warrants, including two separate visits Kraft made to the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter.
A spokesperson for Kraft stated:
“We categorically deny that Mr. Kraft engaged in any illegal activity. Because it is a judicial matter, we will not be commenting further.”
The Patriots, the most successful franchise in the NFL in recent years, and arguably one of the most successful sports franchises in the world, have had their share of bad press during that time. As far back as 2007, the team was embroiled in the “Spygate” scandal after Patriot staffers were caught videotaping opponents’ signals. In April, 2015, former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was convicted of murder. Two years later, he was acquitted of a double murder charge, but days later committed suicide in his cell – ironically, the same day that the Patriots visited The White House to celebrate their Super Bowl victory. Standout wide receiver Julian Edelman, this year’s Super Bowl MVP, was forced to start the season on the bench as he served a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. And, of course, in 2015, the Patriots were disciplined by the NFL for intentionally deflating footballs in a playoff game, but only after Tom Brady declined to appeal an adverse Second Circuit ruling upholding his 4 game suspension to the Supreme Court.
The optics are clearly not good. The vaunted “Patriot Way” may lead to on-field wins, but at what price? Does the same win-at-all-costs mentality that allows or even fosters gamesmanship and at the very least rule-bending ultimately create a culture in which no rules apply? NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell now will have the unhappy task of determining the answer to this question.
The NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy states:
Everyone [sic] who is part of the league must refrain from ‘conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in’ the NFL. This includes owners . . .
In the past, NFL owner Jim Irsay of the Indianapolis Colts was disciplined under the Policy for driving while impaired. More recently, Jerry Richardson, then-owner of the Carolina Panthers, was forced to relinquish his team and fined $2.75 million after an independent investigation determined that he had engaged in repetitive sexual and racial discrimination within the workplace. Similarly, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was disciplined by the NBA following an investigation that revealed sexual harassment of 15 female employees over a period of at least 15 years. An analogy can also be drawn to former NBA Clippers owner Donald Sterling, whose racist comments were caught on audio tape. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver immediately called Sterling to account, taking steps to divest him of his franchise before ultimately negotiating a sale of the Clippers to Steve Ballmer.
Historically, Roger Goodell has relied upon the Personal Conduct Policy and his authority under it to discipline behavior that is “detrimental . . . to the league.” Arguably, none of these prior situations presents as compelling a situation as this one, in which vulnerable young women were being forced into apparent sexual servitude. Moreover, the Policy specifically imposes a higher burden upon ownership.
Ownership and club or league management have traditionally been held to a higher standard and will be subject to more significant discipline when violations of the Personal Conduct Policy occur.
Furthermore, the Personal Conduct Policy requires that any incident involving: “domestic violence, dating violence, child abuse and other forms of family violence; or . . . sexual assault involving physical force or committed against someone incapable of giving consent . . . will subject the offender to a baseline suspension without pay of six games, with consideration given to any aggravating or mitigating factors”. Aggravating factors include “when an act is committed against a particularly vulnerable person”. It is hard to imagine a more vulnerable person that a young woman from another country who is being held in captivity and forced to perform sexual acts with multiple individuals for another’s profit.
Clearly, an independent NFL investigation must be instituted immediately. If that investigation confirms that there is indisputable video evidence that Robert Kraft did indeed patronize a prostitution ring engaging in human trafficking, at a bare minimum he should be facing a six game suspension. The conduct alleged, however, goes well beyond the context envisioned by the Personal Conduct Policy. Human trafficking is both criminal and morally reprehensible behavior. While Kraft is currently facing “only” two misdemeanor charges, the ramifications of this are clearly vastly “detrimental to the League”. It is to be hoped that Commissioner Goodell appreciates the severity of this situation and follows Adam Silver’s lead by acting quickly and effectively to address it.
The NFL released a statement today:
“The NFL is aware of the ongoing law enforcement matter and will continue to monitor developments.”
While the circumstances are deplorable, they present an opportunity for the NFL to take a strong moral stance against sexual violence and abuse of women. Forget The Patriot Way. It’s past time for The Right Way.
Robert Kraft with girlfriend Ricki Noel Lander Photocredit: pagesix.com
Helen A. “Nellie” Drew is an expert in sports law, including professional and amateur sports issues ranging from NCAA compliance and Title IX matters to facility construction, discipline of professional athletes, collective bargaining and franchise issues. Drew formerly served as an officer and in-house counsel to the Buffalo Sabres of the National Hockey League, after previously working as outside counsel to the Sabres and the NHL. Among her more interesting experiences were assisting former USSR superstar Alexander Mogilny in obtaining asylum status in the U.S. and working on multiple NHL expansions, including San Jose, Ottawa, Florida and Tampa Bay.
Drew teaches a variety of courses that incorporate topics such as drug testing in professional sports and professional player contract negotiation and arbitration. She is especially interested in the evolving research and litigation concerning concussions in both amateur and professional sports.