Robert Kraft Awaits Your Judgment: ‘I Am Truly Sorry’

When you end up at 77 a billionaire six occasions over and an N.F.L. workforce proprietor virtually working out of fingers for Super Bowl rings, there aren’t a ton of alternatives you haven’t already loved. Private jets are your subways. Weekends with buddies at $2,000-a-night island resorts are your yard barbecues. The query “what to do for kicks?” turns into tougher to reply.

That could also be why Robert Okay. Kraft, the proprietor of the New England Patriots, ended up on stage with Cardi B earlier than Super Bowl LIII final month.

Mr. Kraft was on the pregame social gathering hosted by Michael G. Rubin, the 46-year-old proprietor of Fanatics, the web sports activities merchandise firm, and an proprietor of the Philadelphia 76ers.

Cardi B was performing “Money.” (It goes: “I like boardin’ jets, I like mornin’ sex, but nothing in this world that I like more than checks.”) “Get out there and dance,” stated Meek Mill, simply off the stage, to Mr. Rubin and Mr. Kraft.

And Mr. Kraft’s name continues to propel the conversation about that investigation. “It makes my skin crawl to see him being smeared this way,” said Drew Bledsoe, the former Patriots quarterback.

While Mr. Bledsoe and others who are sympathetic to Mr. Kraft say prosecutors are using the solicitation charges against him largely to publicize their broader investigation, it remains true that the sex trade often exploits women who have few or no means to escape it.

As his lawyers fight the case, Mr. Kraft has been described by friends as conflicted. He is angry about what he did and ashamed of the embarrassment he has caused, yet insistent that he did nothing illegal and is defiant enough to hire a very expensive legal team to battle charges that most people settle quickly.

Several people interviewed for this article say he continues, a month after the case became public, to break down in tears when discussing the situation.

Friends and colleagues in Mr. Kraft’s inner circle say that his current legal problems reveal his continuing struggle to recalibrate in the aftermath of the 2011 death of that “love of my life” — his wife, Myra.

They married in 1963, when he was 22 and about to enroll in Harvard Business School and she was 21, going into her senior year at Brandeis University. They were married for 48 years when Mrs. Kraft died of ovarian cancer.

“Bobby was so devastated when Myra died,” said Steven J. Comen, who has known Mr. Kraft since they were in kindergarten. “It took him a long time to get his bearings. If you can imagine becoming married when they were kids, and having kids when they essentially were still kids, and having the partnership to build something that was so spectacular — and her going through such a long period of suffering and then dying — well, it would have been devastating to anyone.”

This wasn’t a situation where Mr. Kraft took care of the business and Mrs. Kraft saw to the home life, said Tom Brady, the Patriots’ quarterback for 19 years, who called from a family vacation to talk about his closeness with “RKK” and the Kraft family.

“I remember bringing my oldest son, Jack, in to her office and her playing with him on the floor, with blocks and Legos,” Mr. Brady said. “She was very influential in my life and in many players’ lives. She was the mother of four sons, so she knew what it was like being around boys.”

Mr. Kraft has had one serious girlfriend in the intervening years. He met Ricki Noel Lander, now 39, in 2012 at a party hosted by Steve Tisch, an owner of the New York Giants. They have gone through very public phases, like attending a New York City Ballet gala for which Ms. Lander served as a chair, along with Sarah Jessica Parker, in 2016, and she appeared on the field with him after Super Bowl wins, including after the most recent one.

They also have maintained separate lives. In 2017, Ms. Lander became a mother to a baby girl. The Patriots released a statement that said, “While Robert Kraft is not the biological father, he is thrilled with Ricki’s blessing of having a healthy child.” (Attempts to reach Ms. Lander were unsuccessful.)

Public and private reaction to Mr. Kraft’s most recent newsworthiness is complicated. Most of his fellow N.F.L. owners are reluctant to speak publicly about his crisis.

But his fight against a relatively minor charge, using high-priced lawyers, is evidence of his sense of self-importance, possibly prolonging the media attention, according to at least one person familiar with that world.

“The problem with Kraft is the problem with famous people, which is you bring famous attorneys and think they will do a better job,” said Hugh Culverhouse Jr., a former prosecutor and lawyer in Florida and son of the former owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “It’s like going to a knife fight with the entire Seventh Army.”

“He is one of the biggest faces in America, and this is a smart guy saying to the world, ‘This is a good kid.’” Meek Mill said. “It was a big deal for me.”

After Meek Mill was released, Mr. Rubin asked Mr. Kraft to join his efforts to create an organization called Reform Alliance, to fight for changes to criminal justice practices. The eight founders, including Jay-Z and Daniel Loeb, a billionaire investor, pledged a combined $50 million.

Meek Mill sees echoes of his experiences in Mr. Kraft’s current predicament. “They aligned his name with a different set of charges that weren’t tied to him at all,” he said.

There are big differences, and Meek Mill has made sure Mr. Kraft appreciates them too. “I said it to Robert the other day, ‘Someone as powerful as you, you have done so much good in the world and brung so much to America, you see what they did to you,’” Meek Mill said. “I said to him, ‘Imagine someone that comes from poverty in the ghetto who doesn’t have people to speak up for them on their behalf. It happens in my community every day.’”

Mr. Kraft grew up in Brookline, Mass., loving sports, though joining teams was difficult because he couldn’t play on the Sabbath. He liked the Boston Braves baseball team.

He went to college at Columbia, on scholarship. As a senior, he went back to Boston for a football game and spotted Myra Hiatt in a delicatessen. He waited until her date went to the restroom and then introduced himself. He went to the library on the Brandeis campus the next day to look her up, and they married the following year.

Myra finished college, and they had four sons; three work for the family business.

After attending Harvard Business School, Mr. Kraft went to work for his father-in-law. Mr. Kraft had his own vision for the company, and left but eventually purchased the business and began to build a fortune in paper and packaging. As he did, he and Mrs. Kraft established themselves as a power couple in Boston’s charity scene. The family has given away “hundreds of millions of dollars,” a Patriots spokesman said.

Foundations backed by Mr. Kraft are known to make unexpected calls to small organizations in which Mr. Kraft pledges a gift ranging from $100,000 to a few million dollars, urging the nonprofit group to create donor-match campaigns.

A few years ago, Lisa Goldblatt Grace, a founder of My Life My Choice, received such a call, from an executive at the Patriots Foundation. The mission of My Life My Choice is to support young survivors of sexual exploitation and the commercial sex industry. The foundation gave the group $100,000, with a matching incentive. The money allowed the group to hire another mentor, Ms. Grace said.

“We were heartbroken when we heard the news that Robert Kraft had been charged,” Ms. Grace said. “The most important thing we can do is focus on the victims and shine a light that helps people to understand that this is a multi-billion-dollar industry that preys on the most vulnerable.”

In 1994, Mr. Kraft paid $172 million for the Patriots, at the time the largest sum paid for a professional sports franchise.

Mr. Kraft and his son Jonathan flew back from the meeting to Boston (middle seats in coach on T.W.A.) to tell Mrs. Kraft the deal was done. She was worried that the high price tag would make it difficult for the family to continue its philanthropy. Mr. Kraft promised her that owning an N.F.L. team would give them an even larger platform to support their causes.

The next night, Mrs. Kraft overheard her husband on the phone with the head coach, Bill Parcells. Mr. Parcells said he needed $10 million for a contract to sign a player.

She was not happy. “The summer house better be in my name,” she told him.

The investment turned out to be beyond sound. In 2000 Mr. Kraft lured Bill Belichick away from the Patriots’ division rival New York Jets. The next year, Mr. Brady became the team’s starting quarterback, and the Patriots raced all the way to their first Super Bowl win.

Fifteen years ago, Mr. Chesney was dreaming of performing concerts in N.F.L. stadiums, which hold three to four times more fans than other large arenas. “Robert was the first N.F.L. owner to take a chance on a guy from East Tennessee,” Mr. Chesney said.

He has played Gillette Stadium, home of the Patriots, in Foxborough, Mass., 19 times, more than any other musical artist. He has lunch with Mr. Kraft in his office each time he plays there.

“He set me on a path and helped me see a blueprint for how to change the scale of my business and the scope of my touring life,” Mr. Chesney said.

Mr. Kraft has made only a few public appearances since he was charged, including at parties hosted by fellow billionaires Ron Perelman and Barry Diller on Oscar weekend in Los Angeles.

Mr. Rubin called Mr. Kraft and urged him to come to Philadelphia for Meek Mill’s first hometown solo concert since being released from prison last year.

On March 15, Mr. Kraft hung out backstage while Meek Mill performed at the Met Philadelphia, a recently refurbished opera house. Mr. Kraft spent much of his time palling around with Meek Mill’s son and his son’s half brother.

Inevitably, the chatter between Mr. Kraft and the kids turned to football. So Mr. Kraft pulled out his phone and performed his favorite party trick: He FaceTimed Tom Brady and handed the phone to the boys.

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