For nearly 50 years, Rick Grossman has held season tickets to the New England Patriots, trekking two hours from outside New Haven for home games, where he and some two-dozen fans tailgate in parking lot P-10.
They are known as the P-10 Patriot Nuts, in tribute to their fierce devotion. The group is built on camaraderie, the forging of lifelong friendships among men who otherwise might never have met. For them, the Patriots are no idle Sunday pastime.
“It plays a big position in our lives,” he said.
So when the news broke that team owner Robert Kraft had been charged with solicitation in a Florida human trafficking sting, Grossman, like many Patriots fans, created a mental division.
There are the allegations against Kraft. And there is the football team, the six-time Super Bowl champions.
“And to me they’re separate,” Grossman said in an interview Monday. “I don’t see how this has any bearing on the team. It doesn’t reflect what they do on the field. Should he have used better judgment? Of course. He will have to deal with a tainted [reputation], but I think he has done enough charitable works over his career, enough good things, that this will be a footnote.”
Speaking for legions of disappointed Patriots fans, Grossman said it is mystifying that a billionaire could allegedly be so reckless and indiscreet.
“The whole thing is a crazy story and I can’t wrap my mind around why he would put himself in that position,” he said.
On Monday, the National Football League signaled that Kraft could face discipline.
“Our personal conduct policy applies equally to everyone in the NFL,” the league said in a statement. “We will handle this allegation in the same way we would handle any issue under the policy. We are seeking a full understanding of the facts, while ensuring that we do not interfere with an ongoing law enforcement investigation. We will take appropriate action as warranted based on the facts.”
Kraft has denied breaking any laws.
Like many Patriots fans who felt burned by the Deflategate saga, Grossman thinks NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has it out for the Patriots. But Grossman also believes precedent “somewhat ties Goodell’s hands,” limiting how severely he can punish Kraft and his team.
In 2014, the NFL suspended Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay for six games and fined him $500,000 after Irsay pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of driving while intoxicated, admitting he was behind the wheel while under the influence of painkillers oxycodone and hydrocodone.
The scope of the Irsay penalty is definitely on the minds of Patriots fans, who saw their team lose valuable draft choices from the Spygate and Deflategate controversies.
Liam O’Brien, a hardcore Patriots fan from Newton, predicted that if the league punishes Kraft, the penalty will likely be similar to Irsay’s. A league sanction, however, should not end Kraft’s responsibility, he said.
“Before this, you would be hard-pressed to find a Massachusetts native with a negative opinion about Kraft,” he said in an e-mail exchange with The Boston Globe. “This scandal has certainly altered Kraft’s legacy, and it’s going to be hard to talk about him without this topic coming up. The right outcome is for Kraft to take ownership of his mistakes and use his celebrity to raise awareness of human trafficking. Kraft has the platform to make this issue one that everyone is aware of.”
That said, O’Brien said he still plans to support the Patriots.
Arthur Gulinello, who grew up in South Boston and now lives in Quincy, has been following the Patriots since the 1960s.
He said the harshest penalty for Kraft would be a suspension that kept him away from the team. A fine would accomplish nothing given Kraft’s fortune, he said.
Given the region’s strong attachment to the team, it is not surprising that the charges against Kraft would not shake their devotion, many said.
Adam C. Earnheardt, a Youngstown State University professor who coedited a book on sports fans titled “Sports Mania: Essays on Fandom and the Media in the 21st Century,” said that for many intense fans “their identity is wrapped up, in many cases, with the successes and failures of the team.
“When there is some kind of a public hit, on or off the field, many fans see it as a hit to their identity,” he said.
This makes superfans a forgiving bunch, he said, “justifying or nullifying” some bad behaviors connected to their teams. He’s sees it in Los Angles, for instance, where former Lakers great Kobe Bryant is still admired despite being charged with rape in 2003. The case was dropped after the alleged victim declined to testify.
We can see some measure of this effect in New England, where Patriots fans taunted with the football-softening Deflategate imbroglio of 2015 may respond with an exhaustive explanation of the Ideal Gas Law.
“Superfans want to wait for the process [in the Kraft case] to play out,” Earnheardt said. “While on social media, the rest of the world has already convicted him.”