Despite their recent Super Bowl LIII victory, New England's legacy is once again spoiled.
When news broke last Friday of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft's involvement in a Floridian human trafficking ring, my jaw dropped.
I showed my girlfriend, whose family is from the Northeast, the headline. "Look what just happened to your Patriots." The gravity of the situation didn't hit home for her in quite the same fashion it did for me.
The stark juxtaposition of the Kraft charges to the Patriots' recent Super Bowl victory reveals a stain that we've seen in the New England sports world before, but never truly of this magnitude. Leveled at the Patriots in conjunction with their championship laurels have often also been accusations of cheating and unfair play. There was Spygate in 2007 and Deflategate in 2015, but both of those scandals encompassed Brady, Belichick, and the immediate, on-field operations of the team.
Kraft's crime, and it is precisely a crime he has been charged with, is much more heinous than videotaping opponents or letting some air out of footballs.
According to police, Kraft's activity was discovered as part of a lengthy investigation into a large, interconnected system of massage parlors that provided fronts for forced sex work. Kraft is one of at least 25 men that police are investigating in connection to the Orchids of Asia massage parlor in Jupiter, Florida. Other alleged solicitors include John Havens, the ex-president of Citigroup.
Now, I acknowledge that these allegations likely have no effect on the Patriots in terms of their competitiveness. If you have followed my work at all, you may recall my criticism of the NCAA last February when it forced the Louisville Cardinals to vacate their 2013 men's basketball title (among other wins) due to the use of sex parties, in which private escorts were hired, to recruit potential players. While I was far from laudatory of Louisville's tactics, I did question the legitimacy of the NCAA rewriting history.
And although a similar thought applies here, the repeated atmosphere of bad behavior that seems to swirl around the Patriots like a noxious gas will tarnish their dynasty.
We may forget, but there have been great, dynastic football teams before these Patriots. The Dallas Cowboys actually did live up to their hype as "America's Team" in the 1990s when they won three Super Bowls in four years (XXVII, XXVIII, XXX). Their rival Steelers won four in six years in the 1970s (IX, X, XIII, XIV), and even my beloved Green Bay Packers won five NFL championships in seven years with the legendary Vince Lombardi at the helm in the 1960s (three of these were earned prior to the Super Bowl-era). The point being, while the Patriots have no rival in terms of sustained success in this era, none of those great teams, coaches, players, or owners that came before them have experienced even hardly the same level of scandal as has New England.
Imagine Troy Aikman altering footballs to gain an in-game advantage, Chuck Noll illicitly recording walkthroughs, or Vince Lombardi taking advantage of women forced into prostitution.
All of these teams were as great if not greater than the Patriots of the 2000s and 2010s, and yet none of them will be remembered for anything even remotely near the magnitude of Spygate, Deflategate, or now Kraft's prostitution scandal.
With that, I must also reaffirm that I believe very strongly in due process within the law. Too often today in America people make armchair judications, sans all the facts, and abandon the tenet of "innocent until proven guilty altogether." Perhaps these charges are misunderstood or inflated in some way. Certain Patriots fans seem to think so, or at least reserve room for that possibility. And yet, police state that they have video recordings of not just Kraft, but most every man being charged in connection with this human trafficking ring.
Despite the most recent statement from Kraft's spokespeople, I'm not sure how they plan to dispute indisputable video evidence.
And what of this story being more and more about Kraft and less about the people really at the heart of the case? What of the women that were preyed upon? Most of them allegedly came from China, spoke very little English, and lived in deplorable conditions. They were essentially prisoners in the massage parlors, not being allowed to leave the building unless given permission first.
Their story, that of the women who have been most impacted in the immediate sense, has gotten lost under the weight of the powerful men they were forced to service.
The New England Patriots and those in league with them from Brady to Belichick and now to Kraft seem to be unable to shake certain proclivities that run the gamut from sour to dangerously illegal and outright immoral. They are prolific champions, there is no denying that. But their wins will forever bear an asterisk, a brush of rust and rot.
They have won, but what did they lose along the way?