Editor’s Note: This story was originally published March 22. It has been updated to reflect that Florida prosecutors said they intend to release the video.
Consider the options: One year in jail, community service, or a potential life sentence on the internet if an embarrassing video of you goes public.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft has been trying to avoid all these scenarios since being charged with two misdemeanor counts of soliciting prostitution.
Despite those efforts, experts say the real threat to Kraft’s reputation may soon be realized with the possible release of potentially incriminating videos.
Experts: Seeing is believing
Authorities say Kraft was one of many people recorded on surveillance footage paying for and receiving sex acts at a day spa in Jupiter, Florida. Kraft has pleaded not guilty to the charges. He denies that he engaged in any illegal activity.
The 77-year-old billionaire is perhaps the case’s most high-profile defendant, generating speculation over the possible consequences could face if the allegations prove true.
Jail time seems unlikely for a first-time offender of Kraft’s stature. In fact, Florida prosecutors offered to drop misdemeanor charges against him in exchange for fines, community service and an admission that he would be found guilty if he went to trial. But a source familiar with the case said Kraft would not accept the deal.
Meanwhile, Kraft and other defendants have been trying to prevent the footage from being released, underscoring what experts consider the real threat to his livelihood.
“It’s really all about reputation, and when it comes to reputation it’s all about the video,” said Rich Matta, the CEO of ReputationDefender, which specializes in online reputation management.
It’s one thing to hear or read about allegations of criminal activity, said Antonio Williams, an associate professor at Indiana University’s School of Public Health who specializes in brand management in sports.
But seeing is believing, he said. If the footage shows what prosecutors and police claim it shows, it will be difficult for Kraft to deny engaging in illegal activity, and even harder for the NFL to minimize his alleged behavior when weighing possible sanctions, Williams said.
Matta surmised that Kraft’s wealth and reputation will likely shield him from life-altering consequences, no matter the case’s outcome. But the humiliation of such an alleged video in the public domain is no small matter for a public figure like Kraft, Matta said.
“This is mostly just about personal embarrassment,” Matta said. “It’s already been a big embarrassment for him. The video’s release or a leak of the video would just make it worse.”
How Kraft tried to prevent the release of the tapes
Kraft waited four weeks after the charges were announced to speak about the matter. When he did, he apologized for hurting those who “rightfully hold me to a higher standard,” including family, friends, co-workers and fans.
Before the apology, Kraft and other defendants filed several motions seeking to block the release of the videos and other evidence on various grounds.
A subsequent motion to suppress accused police of carrying out an overly invasive “NSA-style surveillance campaign” through a controversial warrant that lets law enforcement search private property without notifying the warrant’s subject beforehand.
Because the footage was obtained through a warrant, however, it’s likely to be upheld as legal, said CNN legal analyst Mark O’Mara, an attorney based in Florida.
What’s in Kraft’s best interest, he said, is ensuring the footage doesn’t become public record. And the way to do that is by keeping it out of the court file, by not requesting it from prosecutors as part of the pretrial exchange of evidence known as discovery, he said.
In yet another motion filed, lawyers for Kraft and the other plaintiffs echoed this point, saying the evidence was confidential and exempt from disclosure because none of it had been produced in discovery.
Despite these efforts, Florida prosecutors said they intend to release the footage through the case of the two women accused of owning and managing the spa.
Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg’s office said it cannot wait for a judge to rule on those motions while the women are being prosecuted, adding the office is obligated under Florida law to release the video.
How do you punish a billionaire?
Regardless of what happens to the footage, the NFL is likely to open an investigation under its personal conduct policy, said lawyer Marissa Pollick, a lecturer in sport management at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology.
The policy applies to “everyone who is part of the league,” including owners, Pollick pointed out. In fact, it warns that owners are “traditionally been held to a higher standard” and could face “more significant discipline.”
The policy also says criminal charges are not necessary for the league to conduct its own investigation, Pollick said.
Given the nature of the allegations and the pressure the league is under to crack down on bad behavior, “I would think the NFL would not want to be perceived as rendering special treatment” to Kraft by forgoing an investigation, Pollick said.
But sport management experts and journalists said it’s hard to predict what kind of consequences one of the most powerful men in American football might face, especially since the circumstances of his case are so unique.
Among the last owners to face serious disciplinary action for detrimental conduct was Jim Irsay of the Indianapolis Colts. After pleading guilty to driving while intoxicated in 2014, he was suspended for six season games and fined $500,000.
Former Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson sold the team he founded amid allegations of workplace sexual harassment in 2018. He was never criminally charged and an NFL investigation resulted in a $2.75 million fine.
The most serious practical consequence, it seems, is that Kraft could lose the team, but there’s no precedent for that, said Diana Moskovitz, a senior editor for sports website Deadspin. Or, the league could dock him draft picks, but that would punish the team just as much as him, she said.
“For better or worse, he has such immense wealth and power it’s really hard to punish him,” she said. “He’ll still probably own the team. He’ll still have Tom Brady as his quarterback. Bill Belichick still gets to be his coach.”
The hit to Kraft’s public stature could be as bad as it gets, “and I don’t discount that,” Moskovitz said. But short of new allegations showing a pattern of criminal activity, she’s skeptical that his current case will have a lasting impact.
“As long as he owns the New England Patriots – especially if they keep winning – he may have to dial down his profile for a little, but he’ll probably do what other famous people have done: You go away for a while and you wait for people to forget.”
CNN’s Jill Martin contributed to this story.