Even though it’s the NFL offseason, Robert Kraft — the billionaire owner of the New England Patriots — has been dominating headlines for the past week. Last Friday, just weeks after the Patriots won their sixth Super Bowl, Kraft was charged with two counts of soliciting a prostitute at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa, a massage parlor in Jupiter, Florida. He was one of more than 25 people charged amid a months-long sex trafficking investigation by police.
If convicted, Kraft faces up to one year in prison, in addition to a $5,000 fine, community service, and a mandatory class on the dangers of human trafficking and prostitution. Through his attorney, Kraft pleaded “not guilty” to the charges on Thursday, and he has requested a bench trial. Most likely, he will reach a plea deal, and never see any prison time at all.
But, of course, the NFL has its own personal conduct policy that applies to players, coaches, and owners, which means it is permitted punish Kraft no matter what happens to Kraft in the legal system. Last year, the NFL fined then-Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson $2.75 million for allegedly making racist remarks, and sexually harassing at least four female employees; and in 2014, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay for six games and fined him $500,000 for driving under the influence.
Many are calling for the NFL to come down even harder on Kraft — suspend him an entire season and fine him $1 million, really use this as an opportunity to showcase the league actually has a moral compass and won’t stand for human trafficking. Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report reports that the league is, indeed, thinking of making an example out of him.
But, in this case, the NFL needs to do something that is far from its forte: be careful and show restraint.
That might sound counterintuitive, given that Kraft was charged as part of a larger human trafficking sting, a statewide investigation that took place over six months and involved shutting down at least 10 massage parlors. Initial reports about the sting painted a picture of dozens of women brought to the United States from China under false premises, and forced to live and perform sex work at a run-down parlor against their will.
While that description is absolutely horrific, there are important contextual factors to consider: Whether the initial police description is accurate; the role Kraft could have played in either stopping or enabling the trafficking (if, in fact, trafficking was taking place); and the most victim-centric ways to fight human trafficking.
First, let’s look at the facts: so far, only one person has been charged with human trafficking in the wider investigation into human trafficking by the Florida police, and police believe that person could be a victim herself. She is one of three women related to the investigation who are currently in jail, but not cooperating with investigators. As of Thursday, only one woman who worked at any of the 10 parlors is self-identifying as a victim and in protective custody.
Of course, one victim of human trafficking is too many, and the investigation is ongoing. But so far, this is panning out as more of a prostitution sting punishing consenting sex workers, and not a dramatic unveiling of a sex trafficking ring. Jill McCracken, co-coordinator of Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) Tampa, told ThinkProgress that she has seen similar raids performed across Florida.
“The sting operations are set up as anti-trafficking stings to locate victims of trafficking, but what ends up happening is women are arrested for prostitution,” McCracken said.
So, as it is, if the NFL comes down harder on Kraft than Richardson or Irsay, it would be saying that paying for a consensual sex worker twice is worse than creating a hostile workplace for women and minorities for decades, or driving under the influence, an act which endangers the lives of many innocent people.
But even if this investigation does unveil more connections to human trafficking, that doesn’t mean coming down hard on Kraft is the proper way forward, unless there is evidence that he knew the workers were there against their will and didn’t report it. (And, for the record, no evidence available suggests that is a possibility.)
Cracking down those seeking out sex workers is part of an “end demand” strategy to stop human trafficking. But, according to Freedom Networks USA — the largest domestic network of service providers to trafficking victims — this strategy is flawed because it ignores the root causes of exploitation, diverts resources from investigations prosecuting traffickers, and puts sex workers at greater risk.
“Criminalizing and stigmatizing sexual transactions, even when only focused on buyers, drives the practice into the shadows where violence, extortion, and coercion are more likely to thrive,” Freedom Networks states. “In situations like these, people do not feel safe in seeking legal protection out of fear of arrest, abuse, or humiliation.”
The solution? Focus on a more holistic solution, one that focuses on prevention, not punishment.
All of the time, resources, and funds spent on arresting and penalizing buyers does nothing to solve the one common factor that underlies all exploitation and trafficking – vulnerability. Whether it is the exploitation of someone’s undocumented status or the need for gender-affirming emergency shelter services, the arrest of someone patronizing the sex trade only shifts attention away from these persistent issues. This also disproportionately impacts youth who, because of their status which often requires dependency, face additional obstacles to finding affirming services. By focusing on improving and expanding services identified as necessary by those vulnerable to trafficking, including the dearth of emergency shelter services, adequate job training and opportunities, and access to a living wage –we can do more than simply prosecute trafficking – we can help prevent it.
This takes us back to the NFL. Punishing Kraft more severely than Irsay or Richardson would send a distorted message about the nature of Kraft’s crime. However, if Kraft did what all evidence points to him doing, and solicited sex work twice, that is against the law, and a small fine and/or suspension from the NFL would be appropriate, since it so loves to punish players when they get in legal trouble.
The NFL and Kraft could also reach an arrangement similar to the one between Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and NBA commissioner Adam Silver. Last year, after an investigation revealed that Cuban had enabled domestic violence and an abusive environment within the team’s front office, Cuban agreed to donate $10 million to women’s leadership and domestic-violence organizations. But even donations like this would need to be made carefully. Because many anti-trafficking organizations and campaigns purposefully conflate sex work and sex trafficking, over-inflate statistics about victims of sex trafficking, and promote solutions that increase criminalization, even though studies show that decriminalizing sex work is one of the best ways to fight sex trafficking, since it would empower sex workers to come forward and report trafficking without fear of being prosecuted themselves, and would get rid of some of the power that traffickers have over victims.
“If we really want to help people being victimized, we will try to change the conditions that make people vulnerable to exploitation,” McCracken said.
Human trafficking is a horrific thing, and everyone should be dedicated to stopping it. But suspending Robert Kraft for a year for soliciting consensual sex work or putting money and power behind misleading campaigns could, in the long run, do more harm than good.
“Yes, trafficking is a problem, and forced labor is a problem, as is sexual assault on people who are forced into those situations. But [sex trafficking] doesn’t usually look like a massage parlor that is operating as a business with a license,” Lauren Kiley, a sex worker and advocate for sex worker’s rights, told ThinkProgress.
Unfortunately, truly eradicating human trafficking is going to take systemic change and a nuanced, well-educated understanding of the problem, both in the big-picture sense, and on a personal level. As we’ve seen with domestic violence and sexual assault, such approaches are not the NFL’s forte.