The first pro sports team Robert Kraft owned was the Boston Lobsters. They played in something called World TeamTennis (yes, those two words are supposed to be jammed together).
Kraft bought the franchise in the mid-1970s. He was a thirtysomething who’d made a lot of money in packaging and paper products.
Though lucrative, being the most successful packager this side of Worcester, Mass., is not going to get you invited to the right parties.
Kraft’s Lobsters investment wasn’t a good one. The team folded after a few years. But one supposes making money was not the point. Who buys a tennis ‘team’ in a league no one’s ever heard of? Someone who wants very badly to call themselves a sports owner.
In 1994, after years of manoeuvring, Kraft bought the New England Patriots. He paid US$172-million – at the time, a record price – for a franchise synonymous with mediocrity. Kraft would later say he “broke every one of my personal financial rules” in acquiring the team.
Which makes sense. You don’t buy a sports team to get rich. You’re already filthy rich. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to buy it.
You buy a sports team for the glow, for the juice, for the chance to be asked your thoughts on leadership. You do it so that the governor will call up and ask to sit in your box and then, magically, the governor becomes a good buddy of yours. A sports team turns rich nobodies into rich somebodies.
In the past, the archetypal sports owner was a cunning chiseller – the Harold Ballard type. An up-by-their-bootstraps sort locked in sporadic war with management, players and fans. The owner was often portrayed as a cheapskate, a bumptious meddler or a villain. Often all three.
That changed in the past couple of decades. The new sports owner is a community bigwig and the civic Cheerleader-in-Chief. He’ll spend any amount to win. He’s also likely vain, camera-hungry and attracted to power.
These men became the new rock stars of the business world.
Kraft, 77, emblemized the type. The good fortunes of the Patriots made him seem like an organizational genius. In fact, the only really smart thing he’d done was hire the right coach and then leave him alone. But Kraft seemed happy to soak up the reflected glory.
As the championships piled up, Kraft elbowed his way into the centre of the frame. He had to be the one down on the field the instant the Super Bowl was won, embracing quarterback Tom Brady like a child. The visual symbology was clear – I am father to all this success. Also, Tom Brady just hugged me.
The investment had paid off handsomely (the Patriots are now valued at US$2.5-billion), but those photo-ops were the real profit. Kraft had purchased the most valuable commodity in 21st-century American life – celebrity.
In which case, you can file the past week of Kraft’s life into the section titled “Being careful what you wish for”.
Kraft was charged with soliciting prostitution at a spa in Jupiter, Fla. That’s not a good look, but more humiliating than damning. It was second part – that the charge was connected to a human-trafficking probe – that made it terrible.
Kraft has denied the charge and is presumed innocent. But his reputation has already taken a hammering.
All that striving, and for what? A jewellery collection and the opportunity to see your embarrassments played for laughs on the cover of the New York Post (in this case, the headline was ‘Inflate Gate’ – not its best work).
A lot of other men were charged in the same sting. One of them is also a billionaire. He runs a private-equity firm. Another is the boyfriend of a top-ranked LPGA golfer. You don’t know any of them.
Presumably, somebody far more wicked than the johns ran this alleged trafficking ring. You don’t know them either.
You only know Kraft, because he wanted so badly to be famous. A great glee is being taken in his fall because of that, because he’s rich and because he is a friend of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Buried under the questions of morality, culpability and fairness, there is a cautionary tale about proximity to the sun.
Everybody wants to be seen. In our culture, there is no higher-profile way to do that than by standing next to a sports star.
Your mother may be impressed that you’ve shaken hands with the prime minister. May be. But if you’ve got a photo of yourself with LeBron James’s arm on your shoulder, that’s something. That’s a portal to a different world.
I’ve seen this many times – platinum-seat-owning, Master-of-the-Universe types getting breathless and giggly when an NBA player blows past them in a hallway. You may be rich, but now you are breathing the same air as a god. It’s narcotic.
I’ve never understood the effect. They’re just people. Extremely talented people, but people nonetheless. Nobody starts hyperventilating when they ride in an elevator with one of the five greatest cardiac surgeons in the world. Maybe that’s our problem.
Plus, the players have little interest in outsiders. No group is more tribal than pro athletes. There’s only way into the tribe. And membership can’t be bought.
Kraft may have the number to Tom Brady’s batphone, but he was never going to get up to the same plane as him. Being adjacent to stardom does not make you a star.
What Kraft did manage to do was make himself just as big a target as Brady. Now he’s reaping the whirlwind on that score.
It’s a very modern kind of downfall. In the past, ambitious people craved power and wealth. Nowadays, power and wealth amplify a new craving – for notoriety. No venue is more conducive to this human frailty than professional sports.
You’ll never get what you want. Not really. You won’t be remembered. Your accomplishments won’t be lionized. If someone puts up a plaque, it’s because you paid for it. You were just the guy with the money.
But when it goes wrong, you get buried just as deep as the real stars. And unlike them, you can’t play yourself out of a hole.