SportsPulse: Will Robert Kraft face actual jail time? Will the video inside the spa ever be released? A.J. Perez breaks down what’s next for the Patriots owner legally.
In May 1975, a former dress manufacturer named Harry Kraft died in Boston and left his son Robert an “ethical will” — a Jewish custom that typically shares lessons of life upon death.
Robert Kraft disclosed that message to USA TODAY Sports in 1997:
“Remember the legacy I’m trying to leave you is a good name,” the father told the son. “It is a man’s most precious asset.”
Forty-four years later, that asset is being publicly tested like never before despite a lifetime of philanthropy and goodwill. After making a fortune in the paper and packaging business, Robert Kraft donated hundreds of millions to various causes and has led the New England Patriots to six Super Bowl wins since buying the team in 1994. In January, he even was awarded the so-called “Jewish Nobel” prize by the Genesis Prize Foundation for his commitment to Israel and Jewish values.
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But something else also has played out publicly with Kraft in recent years, mostly since the death of his wife Myra in July 2011.
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Kraft, 77, has developed an especially eccentric image as an NFL owner, drawing parallels to the 1986 movie “Back to School” — in which an older wealthy businessman goes to college and becomes popular on the party scene.
In Kraft’s case, he’s become known for wearing sneakers with business suits and dating a woman nearly half his age. He danced on stage with rapper Cardi B at a Super Bowl party this year. He even sported gaudy jewelry and hung out with other rap stars at the NBA All-Star game in Charlotte.
Then in late February, the plot took a dark turn when authorities in Florida said they had caught Kraft on video soliciting sex services at a spa they were investigating for suspected human trafficking. Kraft has pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor charges of soliciting a prostitute and has denied illegal activity through a spokesperson. His arraignment is scheduled for March 28.
If true, one big question is why. Why would one of the most powerful team owners in American sports — a person with so much esteem behind his name — risk tarnishing it with something like this?
Given his personal history, the situation is both confounding and not entirely surprising, depending on which chapter of his life is being considered. Either way, Kraft’s larger story has taken a sad twist, with many who know him urging caution about jumping to conclusions.
“I’m confident that in a matter of weeks things will come out about that, that it will be clearer,” said Steven Comen, a friend of Kraft’s since kindergarten.
Comen knows Kraft as a generous friend whose family didn’t own a car, whose father served as lay leader at the synagogue and whose core values of helping others were formed by age 13. Others recently have seen a more wild side and question whether he’s been trying to fill a void of loneliness after his wife of 48 years died of ovarian cancer.
“He’s been pretty open, at least he was with me, about how he was just so set adrift after his wife died,” said Mark Leibovich, author of a book published last year about NFL owners entitled Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times. “I think it’s just sort of an odd, kind of goofy but ultimately kind of sad story.”
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To gain a better understanding of Kraft’s trajectory, USA TODAY Sports delved into his background through various sources, including historical records that show a public life that can be divided into three parts, each with threads running through today.
The Braves and business
Kraft and Comen, an attorney in Boston, grew up in Brookline, Mass., and were fans of the nearby Boston Braves of baseball.
They viewed the Braves, who moved to Milwaukee in 1953, as a more welcoming team with a more blue-collar fan base than the Red Sox. Unlike the Red Sox, who became the last team to racially integrate (in 1959), the Braves’ roster included an African-American center fielder, Sam Jethroe, and a Jewish outfielder, Sid Gordon.
Both played for the Braves in the early 1950s, when Comen and Kraft were about 10 years old. This was a big moment in time for them and the larger world, shortly after World War II and after the founding of Israel in 1948.
“It was something that we as kids saw as the right thing, to see a Jewish player and black player,” Comen told USA TODAY Sports. “In those days, for that to be true was pretty special.”
Years later, Kraft spotted Myra at a Boston restaurant during a break from his college studies at Columbia. They married in 1963, a bond made stronger because of their shared family values. Myra’s father, Jacob Hiatt, was born in Lithuania and had several family members die during the Holocaust, including both parents.
In Massachusetts, Hiatt became a successful businessman, serving as boss of a box and paper company called Rand-Whitney. His son-in-law later joined the company, purchased a controlling stake and then built a larger diversified business. .
Kraft eventually amassed enough wealth to own a sports team — the Boston Lobsters of World Team Tennis.
His ownership of the Lobsters also was the reason for his first mention in a major newspaper outside Boston, according to USA TODAY Sports research. It came in 1978, when Martina Navratilova starred for the team and Myra Kraft was quoted in the Washington Post about how she had asked members of the Cape Cod Conservatory to play the national anthem for the event that night.
“The woman said she might be able to round up eight woodwind players,” Myra Kraft said. “Then they heard the match was going to be on TV. Suddenly 40 musicians showed up, all looking for the cameras.”
Similarly, attention from that team ownership became a small tease for the fame that came later for Kraft.
Myra Kraft wasn’t exactly crazy about buying the Patriots in 1994 for a then-record $172 million. She described football as a brutal game and was wary of players with troubled histories.
After the 1996 player draft, the Boston Herald reported Kraft didn’t want to pick Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips out of fear of recrimination from his wife.
Phillips had a history of domestic violence, troubling Myra, who also noticed that one of the Patriots’ draft picks that year, Nebraska’s Christian Peter, had pleaded no contest to sexual assault. “This Nebraska must have some student body,” Myra Kraft said. The team renounced its rights to Peter shortly thereafter.
Similarly, she had worried football would detract from their mission.
“She said, ‘If you buy the team, I don’t want it to reduce a single dollar of what we can give to charity,’ ” sports consultant Marc Ganis told USA TODAY Sports. Ganis works with NFL owners and knew the couple. “He promised her that would be the case,” Ganis said.
The team since has increased its value to $3.8 billion last year, second only to the Dallas Cowboys, according to Forbes. The first six years still had bumps for Kraft, who didn’t return a message seeking comment for this story, along with several family members and others who know him well.
He had a falling out with Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells after the 1996 season, then fired a future Super Bowl winning coach, Pete Carroll.
“I think we have to reassess the whole organization,” Kraft said after Carroll’s firing in January 2000.
They hired Bill Belichick as the new head coach and drafted Tom Brady in the sixth round as quarterback. All six Super Bowl wins came after that — a surge of success that has helped elevate Kraft on an international stage with powerful friends such as President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is expected to present Kraft with the Genesis Prize in June.
In June 2003, Kraft and his wife celebrated their 40th anniversary at Gillette Stadium, where legendary singer Elton John entertained a private party that included Brady, Trump and then-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
By then, Kraft’s name was becoming so big as Patriots owner that he’s often presumed to be the maker of Velveeta cheese and Jell-O for Kraft Heinz, the giant food company in Chicago. He’s not. In fact, Kraft’s family name stems from that of his paternal grandfather, Louis Krafchinsky, who had five children, including Harry, whose charitable standards matched his daughter-in-law’s.
True to her wishes, the Patriots platform has allowed Kraft to raise and donate more money for causes such as education, health and medicine. That continued after the death of Myra, who also is survived by four adult sons.
“He’s got kids and grandchildren and friends all over the world, but it’s not the same,” Comen said. “When you are as blessed as he was to have a kindred spirit, like Myra was with him, then it’s always going to be lonely without her, and nothing can change that.”
Comen still warns against practicing armchair psychology when looking at Kraft’s life since Myra’s death.
“What is true is how important Myra was to him and how devastated he was by her death,” Comen said. “But that doesn’t mean he’s some crazy old coot now who’s lost his bearings.”
“Crazy” doesn’t describe it. “Lonely” might be a better word after a loss that big. In his book about NFL owners, Leibovich wrote that Kraft’s collection of “friends half his age” is often the first thing people mention about him. “They do so with both mockery and envy,” Leibovich wrote.
The changes in his public image still coincide with Myra’s passing, including even his public political brand:
► A longtime supporter of Democrats, Kraft recently has been tight with Republican Trump, who contacted Kraft to comfort him after his Myra’s death. “Bobby was very touched by that,” Comen said. Trump had been known to covet owning an NFL team and reportedly was in the mix for the Patriots before 1994. The bond between the two particularly strengthened during Kraft’s mourning of his wife.
► About a year after Myra’s death, Kraft began dating Ricki Noel Lander, 39, an actress he met at a party in Beverly Hills. After she had a baby daughter in 2017, a Patriots spokesperson took the unusual step of issuing a statement that asserted Kraft was not the biological father. “There’s something a little bit off about things like that,” Leibovich said. “I mean, you have about as buttoned-down of a football guy at the top of that organization in Bill Belichick, and then you have wacky stuff coming out like that.”
► Kraft also began the practice of wearing sneakers with formal dress around 2011 after being bothered by pain in stiffer shoes. He now has his own Nike model whose sales benefit the Boys & Girls Club of Boston. “Bobby understood from an early time that if you build up your personal brand, there is great power in that personal brand,” Comen said, explaining how he uses sneakers to benefit charity.
In February, Kraft and his sneakers arrived at the Super Bowl accompanied by rock star Jon Bon Jovi and entertainer Kevin Hart.
► Last year, Kraft visited rapper Meek Mill in prison and called for him to be released as part of a criminal justice reform effort he’s pushing with Kraft’s friend, Michael Rubin, the 46-year-old co-owner of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. Mill had been imprisoned under questionable circumstances and was among those with Kraft at the All-Star Game this year.
► Then there are the Hollywood parties, often around awards season. This year, Kraft was spotted making the rounds during the same weekend the news broke about the spa in Florida. Leibovich, who interviewed and observed Kraft and other owners for his book, described Kraft as a “star (expletive).”
“He’s a pretty needy guy in his own way,” Leibovich told USA TODAY Sports. Some of it, he said, could come from feeling as if he’s third-fiddle on his own team, a secondary attraction to Brady and Belichick. Some behaviors seem to fit another pattern, too.
“Generally, what happens when a man loses his wife is he kind of loses his sense of purpose and direction,” said Abel Keogh, a relationship coach who has authored books about relationships with widowers after his own wife died in 2011. “Usually, wives have kind of a grounding effect on their husbands. It’s common for widowers old and young to start dating again quickly. They’re looking to fill that hole in their heart.”
Keough isn’t speaking about Kraft’s situation specifically. And Comen scoffs at any notion that his friend came unmoored, saying he’s “more driven to be even more active in even more things.”
Others say this matter won’t affect his legacy in the NFL, if any guilt on his part is limited to the allegations by law enforcement.
“This matter doesn’t define him within NFL circles,” said Ganis, the consultant.
But what about his name beyond that? The Genesis Prize Foundation didn’t return a message seeking comment but has signaled that it will proceed to honor Kraft this year. More recently, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported this week that an advisory board member for the Genesis Prize has stepped down, citing her disappointment with the decision to proceed with honoring the Patriots owner.
His supporters are staying quiet about the Florida case in the meantime.
“It’s important to wait and see,” Comen said.
Contributing: The Associated Press.
Follow sports reporter Brent Schrotenboer on Twitter @Schrotenboer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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