Who is Robert Kraft? Three things to know about the Patriots owner

Robert Kraft is one of the most influential figures on the American sports scene, building the New England Patriots into a dynasty that has claimed six Super Bowl championships. 

The 77-year-old Massachusetts native has long been at the forefront among NFL owners, whether supporting commissioner Roger Goodell in various endeavors or clashing with him amid controversy over accusations of his team cheating via deflated footballs. 

Kraft was in the headlines again Friday when police in Jupiter, Florida, charged him with two misdemeanor counts of soliciting prostitution as part of a wide-ranging probe into a Florida massage parlor targeted in a human trafficking investigation. 

Here are three things to know about Kraft and how he built a football empire: 

Fast rise in business

Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1941, Kraft graduated from Columbia University and received his MBA from Harvard before going to work for Rand-Whitney Group, a paper and packaging company owned by his father-in-law. He took control of the company in 1968, and four years later founded International Forest Products, which his team bio describes as a “trader of paper commodities that now does business annually in more than 90 countries.”

Kraft got into sports team ownership not long after that, taking over the Boston Lobsters of World Team Tennis in 1974, but waited a decade to begin making a play for the Patriots. He bought land adjacent to the NFL team’s then-home, Sullivan Stadium, in Foxborough in 1985. When Patriots owner Billy Sullivan declared bankruptcy in 1988, Kraft purchased the stadium in an auction for $22 million. Two subsequent owners of the team attempted to move the franchise to different cities, but Kraft refused to let them, citing a lease with the stadium that ran through 2001. 

Kraft eventually bought the team in January 1994 for a record-high price of $172 million. The Patriots staged a late-season rally that fall under second-year coach Bill Parcells and made the playoffs for the first time since 1986, losing to the Browns in the wild-card game. 

Building a dynasty

That stunning initial success laid the groundwork for a remarkable run of success. New England reached the Super Bowl two years later, the first of three straight playoff appearances as Parcells handed the coaching reins to Pete Carroll. He was fired after going 8-8 in 1999, setting the stage for three critical moments in Kraft’s ownership in the coming months.

Early in 2000, former Patriots assistant Bill Belichick quit as Jets head coach just one day after he was named to replace Parcells in that position, choosing instead to return to New England and lead the Patriots. In March of that year, the Patriots broke ground on a new, privately financed home that would soon become known as Gillette Stadium, which opened in 2002. A month later, the Patriots selected quarterback Tom Brady out of Michigan in the sixth round of the NFL Draft. 

Though the Patriots went 5-11 in Belichick’s first season in charge, they have not had another losing campaign in the 18 years since, winning six Super Bowls in that span to tie the Steelers for the most all-time. Brady has been their leader on the field throughout that run, establishing himself as arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history while earning 14 Pro Bowl selections and winning NFL MVP honors three times. 

‘Deflategate’ and beyond

Kraft was long considered a powerful and valuable ally to Roger Goodell, but the pair’s relationship became strained over the NFL’s “Deflategate” investigation of potential tampering with footballs during a Patriots-Colts playoff game after the 2014 season. 

The Colts had heard the Patriots might be under-inflating the footballs they used while on offense, purportedly to give Brady a better grip on the ball, and brought the issue to the attention of league officials during what became a 45-7 loss to New England. A lengthy investigation followed, and the NFL ultimately released a 243-page report in May 2015 that implicated two Patriots employees and concluded Brady probably had been “generally aware” that the balls were not up to standard. Days later, the NFL suspended Brady for the first four games of the 2015 season, drawing a furious response from the Patriots organization. 

Kraft said at a news conference that summer that he was “wrong to put my faith in the league” regarding Brady’s discipline, noting that the team hadn’t contested a $1 million fine and loss of draft picks also handed down as part of the punishment. 

“The decision handed down by the league yesterday is unfathomable for me,” Kraft said. “It is routine for discipline in the NFL to be reduced upon appeal. Six months after the AFC Championship Game, the league still has no hard evidence (against Brady). The league’s handling of this entire process has been frustrating and disconcerting.”

The NFL Players’ Association sued on Brady’s behalf, with Kraft in the unusual position of siding with the union rather than the league. A judge initially vacated the suspension, allowing Brady to play in 2015, but a different court reinstated it in April 2016. After missing the first four games that fall, Brady returned to lead the Patriots to another Super Bowl title — forcing Goodell to hand Kraft the Lombardi Trophy after New England’s triumph.