Robert Kraft, who helped build Patriots into dynasty, finds himself at center of scandal

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft holds the Vince Lombardi Trophy after the NFL Super Bowl 51 football game against the Atlanta Falcons Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017, in Houston. The Patriots won 34-28. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft holds the Vince Lombardi Trophy after the Super Bowl LI, Feb. 5, 2017, in Houston. –Darron Cummings / AP

Few people around the NFL wield as much power as Robert Kraft. The 77-year-old owner of the New England Patriots is one of the strongest voices at league meetings, the leader of the team that has won six Super Bowls in 18 years and a man who took a $172 million investment on a struggling football franchise and built it into an empire worth nearly $4 billion.

As his Patriots boomed behind coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, Kraft became one of the most recognizable faces of the NFL’s financial success. The team’s on-field dominance, often referred to as “The Patriot Way,” allowed Kraft distance from a pair of cheating — one involving Belichick, the other Brady — as well as the murder conviction of star tight end Aaron Hernandez.

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In fact, until his Friday charge for soliciting prostitution in a Jupiter, Florida, day spa — an allegation he denies — Kraft was viewed as the smiling, respected, blazer-wearing boss of the Patriot machine who led the team to glory along with his son, Jonathan. His profile has climbed in recent seasons, with each Super Bowl trophy the team has won, including this month’s championship victory over the Los Angeles Rams. In the last six years, he has celebrated a friendship with President Donald Trump, struck a bond with rapper Meek Mill and started dating an actress 39 years younger than him.

The Kraft story has always been portrayed as the rise of a wise and industrious businessman. Now, as police allege he solicited prostitution at a Florida spa, Kraft faces a new challenge. Will the league suspend him under its personal conduct policy? Will his prominence around the NFL be diminished?

The son of a Boston dressmaker, Kraft became a billionaire through a series of savvy business deals. In 1968, he used a leveraged buyout to take over a packaging products company owned by the father of his late wife Myra, before starting another paper commodities company called International Forrest Products. And while those two companies made him rich, it was his calculated gamble on a field of muddy parking lots along a two-lane road between Boston and Providence that eventually led to his greatest fame.

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In 1985, Kraft — a Patriots season ticket holder — agreed to pay $1 million a year for 10 years to rent the parking lots around the team’s then-home, Sullivan Stadium, eventually buying them for $18 million. Later, in an interview, he would describe the move as the first piece of “a three-legged stool” that got him the team.

Kraft said he knew the team’s owner, Billy Sullivan, was struggling financially and would soon need to let go of the team. Kraft held onto the lots when Sullivan sold the team to Victor Kiam in 1988, because Sullivan did not include the stadium in the deal. Later, he paid $25 million for the stadium in bankruptcy court, outbidding Kiam by $5 million. As owner of both the stadium and the parking lots, he controlled a large piece of the Patriots’ potential game-day revenue. In the early-1990s, Kiam was forced to turn the team over to one of his creditors and Kraft pounced, paying $172 million for the Patriots in 1994.

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Even his wife, he said, hated the deal.

“I went back to the early 50s,” Kraft said in 2011. “My team was the Boston Braves. When I was a kid we never got to see Hank Aaron (because the team moved to Milwaukee). This wasn’t about money. Certain things in life are what you are passionate about. This was my chance to step up. I went way beyond what was appropriate but I knew I would never have another chance. And I had confidence of sitting in those stands that there was tremendous brand equity in that region that could be tapped if we ran a respectable operation.”

It turned out he was right. He hired as head coach Bill Parcells, who took the Patriots to the Super Bowl in 1997 and then parlayed a friendship with Belichick – then Parcells’ defensive coordinator – into luring Belichick as head coach in 2000. The Patriots won their first Super Bowl in Belichick’s second season, which coincided with Brady’s ascension to the starting quarterback position. The next year, Kraft opened a sparkling new stadium, eventually surrounding it with a sprawling shopping and office district called Patriot Place that has become a lucrative model for other sports owners who want to build new stadiums. The franchise continued to grow, and last September, Forbes estimated the value of the Patriots franchise to be $3.8 billion.

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As the Patriots have thrived on the field, Kraft has emerged as one of the NFL’s most influential leaders. He is considered a behind-the-scenes power broker among owners, including playing a key role in resolving the owners’ labor dispute with players in 2011. At one point he was viewed as a de-facto deputy commissioner to Roger Goodell, before the NFL’s Deflategate punishment against Brady tested the relationship.

That scandal, which resulted in a four-game suspension for Brady after he was found to have played a role in using underinflated footballs, was one of two that have raised questions about the team’s competitive practices during the tenures of Kraft, Belichick and Brady. The 2007 Spygate scandal also resulted in league discipline after the NFL determined the Patriots were videotaping opponents’ signals outside league rules.

A year after the Patriots signed Hernandez to a five-year, $39.5 million contract, the tight end was arrested in 2013 and later convicted of killing Odin Lloyd. Though the Patriots did their best to distance themselves from Hernandez, who later killed himself in prison, the murder was seen as a blemish on the Patriot Way.

Myra Kraft died in 2011 and soon after, Kraft’s social profile broadened. He has been photographed extensively with actress Ricki Noel Lander. While Kraft considered a career in politics as a Democrat when he was younger, he has been longtime friends with Trump. He also has become close with Mill, even visiting the rapper in Pennsylvania where he was serving a prison sentence for a parole violation.

Kraft advocated for Mill’s eventual release and has been seen at events with Mill and other artists like Gucci Mane. When the Patriots won their most-recent Super Bowl earlier this month, Mill gave Kraft a giant diamond and necklace to celebrate the team’s dynasty. Just this past weekend, Kraft attended the NBA All Star Game in Charlotte and wore the necklace over a black shirt as he sat courtside.

It seemed Kraft’s prominence was never greater. Now, five days later, facing a warrant for his arrest, with Florida police saying they have video evidence of the Patriots owner engaging in a sex act with the employee of a spa that is the target of a human trafficking investigation, Kraft’s legacy may be damaged. The scandals that have involved others in the franchise have always missed him.

This time, however, it is Kraft – one of the NFL’s most-powerful men – who is the scandal.

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