How the NFL commissioner deals with one of the most powerful owners in the league could have a ripple effect on the upcoming CBA talks.
There will be smirks and jokes. There will be hand wringing and proclamations about proper punishment from the NFL.
Some people are going to dismiss the accusations of solicitation against New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft as comical, something more embarrassing than substantial. Others will wave a finger and proclaim this the worst of human trafficking and the underside of the sex industry.
Whatever it is, it will work itself out for Kraft from a legal standpoint.
The question is what will this situation mean for the New England Patriots and the NFL as the league wades through an upcoming negotiation over the Collective Bargaining Agreement?
To frame it another way, how will NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell deal with this as he keeps an eye maintaining labor peace after the 2020 season?
For those who don’t remember, Kraft was a critical part of the 2011 talks that ended the lockout between the owners and the players. His counsel led to a 10-year agreement that has spurred unprecedented growth in the popularity and economic strength of the game.
To use a phrase that is both ironic and unintentionally snarky, Kraft was the good cop in the labor talks. His calm persuasiveness provided a counter to hardline negotiators such as Goodell, Dallas owner Jerry Jones and (to add more irony to the moment) then-Carolina owner Jerry Richardson.
As Kraft likes to say about others, he was a real mensch when it came to settling the thorny issues that go with labor talks. Sadly, his honor and integrity are obviously now in question. As a result, Goodell will have to sort through how to handle this situation.
There will be the moment that TMZ or some other news organization gets its hands on the video evidence that authorities already say they have. There will be the people who measure the potential transgressions against what owners such as Richardson and Jim Irsay did to earn punishment.
Richardson was essentially forced to sell the Carolina Panthers after it was reported that he had sexually harassed female employees. Irsay was fined and suspended over drug use.
Like any person involved in the NFL, Kraft is subject to the league’s Personal Conduct Policy. In fact, owners are the very first people listed as being subject to the policy. The very essence of the policy is predicated on Goodell meting out punishment in some relatively even-handed way.
At the same time, Goodell knows he needs Kraft in a position of strength. Yes, the men have had their problems. The suspension of quarterback Tom Brady and the punishment of the Patriots after Deflategate put Goodell and Kraft at odds.
The two men have made their peace since then and both understand that the good of the league is dependent on their cooperation.
There is no time that’s more important for that cooperation than when the league is dealing with the players in labor talks. Small moments become overwhelming problems. When Richardson mocked quarterback Peyton Manning in the middle of the 2011 talks, it took months for the two sides to overcome the angry aftermath. Trust and respect had been destroyed.
Eventually, those issues were solved as Kraft talked to union leaders such as Jeff Saturday. Kraft could then look at his business partners and tell them they had pushed enough. He could also tell them to keep their mouths shut as they enjoyed the spoils of their victory in the negotiation.
Kraft is unique in that ability. He is one of the few owners who has both the charisma to treat the players with respect and the business acumen to command respect and lead the other owners.
If you look ahead a couple of years, the question becomes whether Kraft will be there again to solve the problem. Will this situation be something that can be managed in a way that allows Kraft to return to his former role? Or will it overwhelm him and possibly force him out of the league?
The answers to those questions may have a huge impact on the future of the NFL.