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Patriots' Kraft Is a Victim of His Own Injustice

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft issued a damning indictment of the NFL's disciplinary system, and of Commissioner Roger Goodell's unchecked power in the handling of Tom Brady's Deflategate suspension. The problem is, Kraft is among those responsible for Goodell having that power in the first place.

Everyone's culpable in dragging out this silly, relatively inconsequential fight, which by now is more about public messaging than legal substance or, you know, "justice." Each side is trading press releases and strategic news leaks, a battle the NFL is currently winning, thanks to the league highlighting that Tom Brady disposed of his cell phone around the time he was set to meet with investigators. 

Recent developments: NBC Sports' Mike Florio cites an unnamed source who says the NFL was willing to cut Brady's four-game suspension to two games if he confessed to knowing about the deflated footballs, admitted he didn't cooperate with the investigation, and apologized -- publicly. Missing some games in one season wouldn't hurt Brady's long-term marketability as much as a public admission of guilt, so it's understandable if he scoffed at the offer. (Earlier reports stated that Brady's camp remained steadfast on refusing any settlement that had Brady missing even a single game, as such an agreement would be construed as an admission of guilt.) 

The two sides may not be done talking, but the blustering by Kraft (and Brady himself) on Wednesday could undermine reaching any deal. Brady went on the offensive in a long Facebook post, reasserting that he "did nothing wrong." He also addressed the cell phone controversy, correctly stating that the NFL had no legal right to his private phone messages and that "as a member of a union, I was under no obligation to set a new precedent going forward."

Then came Kraft's statement, in which he called the NFL's decision "unfathomable" and lamented, "I was wrong to put my faith in the league," a direct answer to those critics who blasted him for accepting the penalty against the team -- the loss of a draft pick and a $1 million fine -- back in May. He apologized to the fans and also stated that the league's disciplinary history would suggest a reduction of the suspension upon appeal. "Unfortunately, I was wrong," he said.

That's all true: Whatever you think about what actually went down with those footballs, it's a dangerous precedent to accept that your employer has a right to your private cell phone, and the NFL commonly reduces penalties when players appeal them. (See Le'Veon Bell this week.)

But Kraft's sudden outrage over the league's disciplinary inconsistencies is enough to induce permanent side-eye, given his history of defending Goodell's decisions and the role he's played in concentrating power in the commissioner's office. Kraft was one of Goodell's staunchest supporters during the Ray Rice debacle, characterizing the commissioner's haphazard decision-making as "excellent." And as longtime member of Goodell's inner circle, and as one of the most powerful owners in the NFL, Kraft has had a hand in denying any kind of system of checks and balances in the league, such as neutral arbitration as standard practice in settling disputes. Instead, Goodell has the power to appoint himself his own arbitrator -- a point that apparently isn't so absurd to an owner until it's his team in the dock.

The Brady situation is particularly interesting because it highlights a rare break of an owner from the league -- from the commissioner, from The Shield,  from the 30 other owners. Usually these kinds of disputes come down to league vs. player, but now we're seeing owner/player vs. league. And you'd be forgiven for thinking that it's in part due to the resentment of some of the other owners, who largely support Goodell's decision to uphold Brady's suspension, toward the perceived favoritism Kraft has received over the years.

Kraft has long gained from the centralizing of power in the NFL, now he's discovering what it's like to be its target.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net