If we learn anything from Deflategate – and at this point, that’s still a pretty big “if” – it’s that despite a season full of of promises for reform, it’s clear who still calls the shots in the National Football League. No, it’s not actually Commissioner Roger Goodell, despite his near-totalitarian grip on player conduct and league justice. It’s the team owners who employ him, and can still put him in his place when the need arises.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft took to the podium Monday to express his dismay with the league’s handling of its investigation into whether the team intentionally tampered with footballs in the AFC title game. Kraft reiterated the organization’s innocence and called for the NFL to apologize to the Patriots should the investigation led by attorney Ted Wells fail to yield definitive proof of tampering.
“I would expect and hope that the league would apologize to our entire team and, in particular, Coach (Bill) Belichick and Tom Brady for what they have had to endure this past week,” Kraft said.
The statement was especially startling given Kraft’s close relationship with Goodell, documented in a widely circulated profile on the commissioner by GQ’s Gabriel Sherman. Kraft was one of Goodell’s staunchest defenders during the Ray Rice crisis, reportedly urging fellow owners to publicly back the commissioner. And as a member of the NFL’s compensation committee, Kraft had a hand in approving Goodell’s astronomical pay package of around $44 million last season.
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“So large is Kraft’s sway with Goodell that one veteran NFL executive likes to call him ‘the assistant commissioner,’” Sherman wrote.
Kraft’s place in Goodell’s inner circle is no secret, nor is the favoritism that causes resentment among other owners who don’t sit at the popular table. So while Deflategate has drawn out some of the more active conspiracy theorists, it’s not a stretch to wonder whether Goodell can be truly impartial when he ultimately makes his decision. It’s understandable that Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman doubts any action will be taken given the apparent “conflict of interest” at hand.
With that in mind, Kraft’s statement on Monday sounded like a clear warning shot to a league office that hasn’t yet crossed him, and would do well to keep it that way. As ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio, quoting a Patriots source, put it, “This was Robert Kraft reminding Roger Goodell who he works for.”
The realities of the league’s hierarchy were on full display during the last round of labor negotiations in 2011, with reports that Goodell had taken a back seat to owners including Kraft and the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones. “It’s like they are giving him the keys to the car, but they are not letting him drive it,” Yahoo Sports’ Jason Cole said at the time.
Back in 2007, when the Patriots were caught spying on the New York Jets’ defensive signals, the league severely mishandled the investigation and raised suspicion by destroying video evidence that might have answered further questions about the scope of the infraction.
The NFL’s mishandling of the Rice investigation raised similar questions of a possible cover-up. At the very least, it was meant to serve the interests of the Baltimore Ravens and owner Steve Bisciotti by helping to deflect blame away from Rice and onto his victim.
A damning report by ESPN’s Don Van Natta Jr. and Kevin Van Valkenburg detailed a “pattern of misinformation and misdirection” in which the NFL “took an uncharacteristically passive approach” in its investigation that resulted in Goodell initially giving Rice just a two-game suspension “as a favor to his good friend Bisciotti.” (The Ravens have vehemently denied that they lobbied Goodell to go easy on Rice; the league has disputed the ESPN report.)
Now, with still more foot-dragging in Deflategate, Goodell can avoid making any decisions that might affect the Super Bowl, which should at least make Kraft happy. (Wells said Monday he expects the investigation to take “several more weeks.”)
But forgive us for thinking the entire episode, instead of imperiling the Patriots, has simply given Kraft a chance to reassert his authority over Goodell, reminding us all that the commissioner is nothing but a figurehead bolstered by a group of billionaires. Calls for Goodell’s individual accountability are meaningless in a league that structures all the power at the top, with owners pulling the strings above him.
Kavitha A. Davidson writes about sports for Bloomberg View.