Did Vladimir Putin Steal Patriots Super Bowl Ring?

Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. He is the author of the best-selling "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning," the basis for the eight-part ESPN mini-series. He also wrote "The Challenge," the winner of the 2009 Scribes Book Award, and "Death Comes to Happy Valley."
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Super Bowl rings have been sold for charity. They have been used to buy drugs, to pay back taxes and to cover emergency dental procedures. And now one has become the object of an international mystery.

It started in 2005, when New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft visited Russia with a group of American executives. The highlight of the trip was a two-hour meeting with Russia's then-President Vladimir Putin. At a press conference that followed, Kraft gave Putin his latest diamond-encrusted Super Bowl ring.

Unless, that is, Putin stole it.

Here's what we know. After meeting Putin, Kraft issued a statement assuring the public that the ring was definitely a gift. "I have ancestors from Russia, so it added significance for me to know that something so cherished would reside at the Kremlin along with other special gifts given to Russian presidents," he said. "It was truly an act of serendipity and one that I am honored to have experienced. It touched me to see President Putin's reaction to the ring and I felt, emotionally, that it was the right way to conclude an exceptional meeting."

International crisis averted. Until now. Here's where things get murkier. Over the weekend, news surfaced that Kraft had recently told a gathering at the Waldorf Astoria that he had never meant to give Putin the ring; he was just showing it to the Russian leader. Putin tried the ring on -- "I could kill someone with this ring," he said, according to Kraft -- then put it in his pocket and walked away. Kraft said he had wanted to retrieve the ring, but the Bush administration asked him to take one for the team, so he let Putin keep it.

Putin insists the ring was clearly a gift. Kraft is now reverting to his original story, with an aide saying the anecdote that features Putin as a thug is one Kraft "retells for laughs." Kraft has "great respect" for Putin and is happy the ring is at the Kremlin.

I don't buy it. It's hard to imagine the owner of an NFL football team giving away that most coveted of objects -- a Super Bowl ring -- and to a complete stranger, no less. It's less hard to imagine Putin seeing something he wants and taking it.

It sounds to me as though Kraft might have received another call recently from the White House, this one from an administration desperately trying to convince Putin to bring Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to the negotiating table. That's a daunting task even when prominent Americans aren't accusing the Russian leader of swiping their jewelry. So to the list of unsavory fates that have befallen Super Bowl rings, add one more: hostage to political gamesmanship and the global competition for power.

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