First Down?

Trump Ally Kraft 'Deeply Disappointed' by U.S. President's NFL Comments

Jewish owner of New England Patriots puts club loyalties above friendship to defend his players' right to protest and 'peacefully affect social change'

President Donald Trump, center, is presented with a New England Patriots jersey from Patriots owner Robert Kraft, right, and head coach Bill Belichick at the White House, Washington, April 2017.
Susan Walsh/AP

Robert Kraft, the Jewish owner of the New England Patriots, put his longtime friendship with U.S.  President Donald Trump to the side on Sunday and criticized the leader for his recent comments about American football players.

Kraft has been heavily criticized in the past for his support of Trump, a man he has called “a very close friend of mine over two decades.” But Trump’s call for National Football League owners to fire players who protest during the U.S. national anthem and proposal that fans boycott NFL games to pressure those players changed the dynamic.

Kraft released a statement on Twitter on Sunday writing that he was “deeply disappointed by the tone of comments made by the president on Friday.

“I am proud to be associated with so many players who make such tremendous contributions in positively impacting our communities,” he continued. “Their efforts, both on and off the field, help bring people together and make our community stronger. There is no greater unifier in this country than sports, and unfortunately, nothing more divisive than politics. I think our political leaders could learn a lot from the lessons of teamwork and the importance of working together toward a common goal. Our players are intelligent, thoughtful and care deeply about our community and I support their right to peacefully affect social change and raise awareness in a manner that they feel is most impactful.”

Kraft, 76, chairman and CEO of the Kraft Group – a holding company with assets in paper, packaging, real estate and sports teams – is a large-scale philanthropist who has donated heavily to Jewish and Israeli causes, and founded and funded the Israel Football League.

In September, he brought a delegation of 19 Hall of Fame NFL players to Israel for the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Kraft Family Sports Campus in Jerusalem – the first facility with three regulation-sized football fields in the Middle East.

The group met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, another “friend” Kraft has supported in stormy political times. In 2015, when Netanyahu delivered his controversial address to Congress opposing the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal, Kraft was in attendance, prominently seated behind Sara Netanyahu.  

Just before the Super Tuesday primaries in March 2016, when Jews looked askance at Trump after Rev. Louis Farrakhan praised the Republican candidate for not taking campaign contributions from Jews, and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke endorsed Trump, Kraft told the Boston Globe that while he wasn’t comfortable talking politics, he was “very comfortable talking about my friendships with people who happen to be in politics.”

He described his warm relationship with Trump, saying they “have had a lot of fun together socially” and worked together on “a number of philanthropic events.” Kraft praised Trump for his emotional support after the former’s wife, Myra, died in 2011, saying the then-presidential candidate “was one of the few people who went out of their way and went above and beyond to assist me through the most difficult time in my life.”

Kraft’s support for Trump – who he backed as a candidate and donated $1 million to his inauguration in January – hasn’t wavered throughout the rocky months of his presidency. Their friendship has persevered: Kraft has traveled with Trump on Air Force One and dined with him at Trump’s Florida retreat, Mar-a-Lago.

When the Patriots visited the White House to celebrate their Super Bowl victory in April, the president was given a personalized Superbowl ring engraved with his name – testament to Trump’s close relationship with the team’s head coach, Bill Belichick, and quarterback Tom Brady. Kraft did his best to downplay the fact that fully half the team wasn’t present for the Washington visit, many of them vocally boycotting the event because of their strong opposition to Trump.

Kraft’s support for Trump has come under fire from the heavily liberal Massachusetts Jewish community and Jewish Patriots fans, who said his support for Trump was an “ugly stain” on their connection to their favorite football team.

During the Charlottesville controversy in August, Kraft was called an “enabler” for refusing to criticize Trump’s remarks about neo-Nazis and white supremacists.