Patriots Owner Robert Kraft’s Balancing Act

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Robert Kraft’s story is about the value of a team owner letting go and leaving the football decisions to the experts.Robert Kraft’s story is about the value of a team owner letting go and leaving the football decisions to the experts.CreditPHOTOGRAPH BY CHARLIE RIEDEL / AP

In January of 1997, the New England Patriots were set to face the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl. Up to that point in the franchise’s thirty-seven history, the Patriots had been an often maligned and mostly irrelevant team, and the week leading up to the game should have been an opportunity to bask in the elusive national spotlight. Instead, the days were dominated by news of an ugly feud between the Patriots’ owner, Robert Kraft, who bought the team in 1994, and his head coach, Bill Parcells, a holdover from the previous regime. The Patriots lost badly to the Packers, and after the game, Parcells didn’t fly home with the team. A few weeks later, the N.F.L. negotiated a deal letting Parcells out of his contract. The issue between Kraft and Parcells had been control; Parcells wanted to be in charge of drafting and trading players, not just coaching them. After the split, Parcells explained the tension by saying, “If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.” Years later, Kraft blamed the rift, in part, on his desire to micromanage the team, telling USA Today, “Look, I was a new owner. I had a lot of debt. I had stardust in my eyes.”

Twenty years later, the Patriots are about to play in a league-record ninth Super Bowl. For the team’s quarterback, Tom Brady, and its head coach, Bill Belichick, the game is a record seventh joint appearance in the N.F.L.’s championship game. (Belichick, with the help of a trusted front-office staff, shops for the groceries.) Kraft, meanwhile, has reached eight Super Bowls, one more than any other owner in the history of the league. This past week, during the annual press circus that descends on both teams playing in the game, Brady and Belichick have remained silent on the two questions that most interested reporters: Any lingering thoughts on the Deflategate scandal? And how do you like President Donald Trump? As a consequence, Kraft has emerged as the team’s most interesting interview.

Kraft’s story is about the value of an owner letting go and leaving the football decisions to the experts. He was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, made his money in the paper-and-packaging industry, and fulfilled a long-held dream when he bought the Patriots for more than a hundred and seventy million dollars, in 1994—at the time, the highest price ever paid for a an American professional sports franchise. (Forbes puts the team’s current value at $3.4 billon.) At first, like many other new owners, Kraft was keen on playing with his new toy. After Parcells’s departure, Kraft hired Pete Carroll, who’d just been fired by the Jets. But Kraft once again limited his coach’s responsibilities, giving power over personnel decisions to a general manager who reported to him. After a few more bumpy years, Kraft brought in Belichick, and, eventually, gave him near-total dominion over the team. (It helped that Belichick won a Super Bowl in his second year.) A historic stretch of dominance followed, and the Patriots are now playing for their fifth Super Bowl championship.

Today, Kraft’s public persona is that of a wise and optimistic cheerleader—the owner who remembers the names of all his players, remains responsive to the demands of fans, signs the checks, and otherwise stays out of the way. Its not the only way to build a successful team: consider the man who might be Kraft’s polar opposite, Jerry Jones, a former oilman and the owner of the Dallas Cowboys who, after initial success in the nineteen-nineties, was accused during a stretch of lean years of meddling with personnel decisions and souring the brand. This year, with his team resurgent, and buoying the league’s flagging television ratings, Jones was lauded for his role in drafting two stellar rookies, the quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott.

It may be hard, beyond the rough and noisy metric of wins and losses, to quantify the value of a good owner, but it’s easy to spot a bad one. Over the years, various wealthy men and women who have bought or lucked into professional teams have enraged fan bases and haunted their dreams, turning stadiums into “factories of sadness.” Teams have been owned by racists, cheapskates, fools, thieves, and, even, during the brief run of the United States Football League, Donald Trump. But while football fans in several cities have their share of legitimate gripes—the Chargers just ditched San Diego for Los Angeles—the modern structure of the N.F.L. prevents some of the most egregious forms of owner malfeasance. Owners can’t distinguish themselves by spending more lavishly than their counterparts, thanks to the salary cap, and they can’t disgrace themselves by spending far less, either, thanks to a salary floor. (There is no regulation, however, preventing the eccentric allocation of that money, as when the Browns’ owner Jimmy Haslam reportedly drafted the quarterback Johnny Manziel on the advice of a homeless person on the street.) The mark of good N.F.L. owners comes out in more subtle ways: the trust they engender with players and coaches, the relationship they manage with fans, and the way they navigate complicated high-stakes relationships with other owners and the league commissioner.

Kraft is known as a talented mediator and negotiator, someone who wields soft power and remains well-liked by people on all sides of a deal. He talks a lot about loyalty, and has reportedly earned it from current and former players, even as Belichick, his head coach, has developed a reputation for mercilessly cutting players at the first sign that they’ve lost a step or simply gotten too expensive. And nowhere has Kraft’s maneuvering been more evident than in his handling of the ongoing Deflategate saga, in which Brady was accused by the N.F.L. of participating in a scheme to deflate footballs during the 2015 playoffs. Kraft defended his quarterback when news of the allegations broke, but a few months later, when the results of a controversial N.F.L. report declared that Brady and the Patriots were culpable, he accepted the league commissioner Roger Goodell’s punishment without a fight, saying, “I do have to respect the commissioner and believe he’s doing what is in the best interest” of the league. Brady, meanwhile, battled on in court, backed by the players’ union.

Within weeks, Kraft had made another about turn, issuing an apology to fans for what many considered the abandonment of his star player, and now, a year and a half later, he is leading the charge of Pats fans seeking redemption for Brady, who was suspended for the first four games of this season. Kraft began his tenure as an owner trying to figure out the secrets of football, but the skill he ultimately mastered was the balancing of the N.F.L.’s corporate interests against the partisan demands of his team’s supporters—without calling attention to the often-conflicting nature of those interests. Two weeks ago, before the A.F.C. Championship game, he told the Times, “Sometimes, the league really messes up, and I think they really messed this up badly.” After the game, accepting the winner’s trophy, Kraft told the crowd, making an unspoken reference to Deflategate, “For a number of reasons, all of you in this stadium understand how big this win was.” Not so quietly, Kraft has put himself at the center of his team’s so-called Revenge Tour, though the villain in this particular revenge story is a commissioner who works for him and his fellow-team owners. It was not exactly clear to whom Kraft was referring, when, this week, he said to reporters, “Jealousy and envy are incurable diseases.”