The NFL’s personal conduct policy includes this paragraph on its sixth page: “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.”
You’re going to hear that passage recited a lot after Friday’s announcement that Patriots owner Robert Kraft was charged by police in Jupiter, Florida, with two misdemeanor counts of soliciting prostitution at a spa. The charges were part of a monthslong investigation into a human trafficking ring involving several South Florida spas. A spokesman for Kraft said he denies engaging in “any illegal activity.” In a statement, the NFL said it “will continue to monitor developments.” Roger Goodell has staked his tenure as NFL commissioner on his authority to impose discipline, and he has often pointed out that owners and executives are subject to the same personal conduct policy as players.
Separate from Kraft’s legal trouble, and the deeply unsettling nature of the evidence presented by authorities as part of its broader investigation, is the question of how Goodell will respond to the charges against Kraft. A potential punishment from the NFL might involve a suspension and a fine, if we use prior disciplinary action as precedent. In 2014, Colts owner Jim Irsay was suspended six games and fined $500,000 after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of operating a vehicle while intoxicated. After he was pulled over during a traffic stop, Irsay was found to have oxycodone, hydrocodone, and alprazolam in his system, and police found over $29,000 in cash in his car.
Owners don’t lose money when they miss games, so the fine levied upon Irsay was more significant than his suspension. Owners do not handle the day-to-day operations for most NFL franchises, so their absence has less of an impact. For instance, Irsay’s daughter assumed his responsibilities during his suspension. In the case of the Patriots, Kraft’s son, Jonathan, is already involved in decision-making as the team’s president. Goodell’s ruling in the Irsay case is also instructive in that he didn’t punish the Colts as an organization because there was no “competitive consequence” to Irsay’s actions. Irsay’s and Kraft’s cases are different—Irsay’s punishment from the NFL came after he pleaded guilty, and Kraft has denied engaging in illegal activity—but it’s possible the league will view these charges as a Robert Kraft scandal and not a Patriots one.
Even armed with this general guidepost, there are two things to remember about NFL disciplinary action: The first is that the league has been inconsistent in how it doles out punishment, to put it kindly. The second is that the charges against Kraft are unlike anything that has happened in the league’s history: One of its most visible owners was charged with soliciting prostitution almost three weeks after his team won a sixth Super Bowl. Irsay’s suspension did not dominate a news cycle. And other past punishments of owners have not involved such serious charges. Some were absurd: In 2009, Titans owner Bud Adams was fined $250,000 for giving the middle finger during a game.
Other instances include boardroom drama that didn’t make much of an impact outside the sport. In 2018, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was forced to reimburse the league $2 million for legal fees to settle a dispute over the suspension of running back Ezekiel Elliott. Twenty years ago, 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. was banned for a year and fined $1 million for a riverboat casino license scandal that eventually forced him to relinquish control of the team to his sister, but that was under a different commissioner in Paul Tagliabue, and it involved gambling, a topic over which the NFL has consistently panicked for nearly its entire existence.
Barring any further legal developments, this will be a humiliating scandal for Kraft, but it remains to be seen what effect it will have on his career. A short suspension would be largely ceremonial—if Kraft were suspended for the start of the season, he’d likely miss the Patriots’ celebration of their Super Bowl title. A longer suspension—if he missed all of September, for instance—would be significant, but it’s unlikely he would make any big personnel decisions during that time. But no NFL owner as famous as Kraft has been charged with such a crime, and that means the fallout could be unprecedented, too.