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Keith Strudler: Special Treatment

One of the strangest comments from the criminal case against New Patriots owner Robert Kraft came from Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg. When asked about Kraft’s legal process after just being formally charged with two first-degree misdemeanors for soliciting prostitution, Aronberg said, “No one gets special treatment in Palm Beach County.” While clearly unintended, that proposition is fairly preposterous for a long list of reasons, most notably the percentage of concentrated wealth along Florida’s gold coast.

That said, right now, Robert Kraft could get a year in jail for paying for sexual activity at Jupiter, Florida, massage parlor. And since this case is fairly public and because this is public radio, I’ll refrain from rehashing the specifics of the charges. Just as problematic as the charges themselves is the fact that the police have graphic surveillance video of Kraft, shall we say, in the act. And while the video isn’t public – at least yet – the script is, all of which makes one of the NFL’s most powerful owners look pretty bad.

This case came to be largely because the authorities are trying bust what seems to be a brutal sex trafficking operation, where women have been forced into non-consensual lives as sex workers in sub-human conditions. That backdrop makes this case far more consequential than the initial salacious headline. From a legal perspective at least, Robert Kraft is no Elliot Spitzer, as odd as that may sound. Now, I can’t speak to what Kraft knew about either the sex trade industry in general or specifically this enterprise in a strip mall in Florida. So for now, let’s deal with the obvious and fairly knowable – the fact that multiple Super Bowl winning NFL owner Robert Kraft hired prostitutes at a massage parlor several times, including the morning of the AFC Championship Game in Kansas City, to which Kraft later flew. For most sports fans, particularly the giant vocal majority that dislikes the New England Patriots, this timeline is almost too much to process.

Also likely having difficulty processing this is NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who will eventually have to decide what to do about all this. Goodell has the challenging mandate of essentially punishing one of his bosses, since the Commissioner technically works for the owners. And amongst this group of big fish, Robert Kraft is something of a great white, more powerful that most anyone north of Jerry Jones. Which means that Goodell has to figure out exactly which group he wants to anger the least.

One of those groups in particular is the NFL labor force – namely the players, all of whom can be punished by the Commissioner for actions like these. Goodell has pretty broad power in deciding what to do, regardless of the legal verdict. More often than not, he’s been accused of not being tough enough, particularly around two cases of domestic violence by athletes Ray Rice and Kareem Hunt. That’s a bad look for an organization that needs to ensure a growing female fan base at a time when everyone’s less tolerant of sweeping such behavior under the rug. Which means that a whole lot of people are going to pay a whole lot of attention to exactly how the NFL decides to deal with one of its owners paying young women for sex in what amounts to modern slavery.

There’s a whole conversation to be had about how the NFL might frame Kraft’s crime. Is he willfully contributing to a horrid abuse of human rights, or is he just a lonely John? Obviously, the more Goodell can focus on process crime and less on social justice, the wider berth he’ll have. But that said, Roger Goodell and the NFL shouldn’t miss this moment to find their footing. Unlike the NFL, the NBA has taken a decidedly progressive stand around social justice issues – including essentially forcing former Clippers owner Donald Sterling to sell his team because of a history of racism. And despite the potential push back, professional basketball is healthier than ever in the US. The NFL might want to steal a page from the NBA’s playbook, to use a sports metaphor, and sternly punish Robert Kraft to send a similar message. Not that they’re political, or too liberal, or whatever critics want to say. But that they’re on the right side of history, whether Robert Kraft is a rich powerful owner or not. That when it comes to one of the world’s most inhumane practices, the NFL will take a hard line.

Now, what kind of punishment is that? Is it four months, or six months, or charitable work, or some combination thereof? That’s hard to say. But whatever it is, it should be clear that just like with State Attorney Dave Aronberg in Palm Beach County, the NFL doesn’t give anyone special treatment.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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