NFL

Behind the Picture of Robert Kraft and Jeff Saturday After the 2011 NFL Lockout: ‘He Helped Us Save Football’

Robert Kraft is regarded as one of the best and most successful owners in NFL history. In the 26 years since he bought the Patriots, the team has had a stunning 291-125 record and won six Super Bowls. Most of Kraft’s coaching and roster decisions have paid off big-time. Yet for all of his success, Kraft’s greatest NFL moment was arguably bigger than any one team.

In 2011, he became one of the most impactful figures in resolving the four-and-a-half month NFL lockout. Let’s look at Kraft’s role in the negotiations and the story behind the famous photo of Kraft hugging Jeff Saturday.

The 2011 NFL lockout

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The key to understanding the 2011 NFL lockout is the collective bargaining agreement, or CBA, which owners and players originally agreed to way back in 1992. The CBA established guidelines regarding issues — the most important being the amount of league revenue that went to the players.

Over the years, the CBA was renewed several times. Yet in 2010, the league’s owners declared that they would not renew the CBA once it expired in 2011. Instead, they wanted to amend the CBA to protect their financial interests. Among other things, this meant less of the league’s revenue would go to the players.

The lockout occurred when the two sides failed to reach an agreement on new terms. A week after the CBA expired in March 2011, the owners imposed a lockout. As a result, there were no free agency or training camps. Players were prohibited from accessing team facilities, including gyms. They were barred from seeing or communicating with coaches, doctors, and other team personnel.  

The league’s players voted unanimously to reject the NFL’s initial offer of new CBA terms. Throughout the ensuing lockout, the players were largely represented by DeMaurice Smith, the Executive Director of the National Football League Players Association. President Kevin Mawae was also involved in negotiations, as were players such as Jeff Saturday, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning.

Robert Kraft’s role in the negotiations

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During the new CBA negotiations, Kraft proved himself to be crucial. A shrewd businessman, Kraft had also spent decades earning the trust and respect of players in the NFL. In fact, a Harvard Law School blog post identified Kraft’s ability to establish relationships of trust as the No. 1 negotiation tactic he used during the lockout.

Apparently, he even went so far as to offer DeMaurice Smith a ride to meetings on his private jet. Kraft was also able to frame the negotiations in the long-term. This helped to ensure that the results would satisfy both players and owners for as long as possible. Finally, he brought to the table an intuitive understanding of which issues were worth conceding.

One photo sums up the emotions of the 2011 NFL lockout

Colts center Jeff Saturday and Patriots owner Robert Kraft
Patriots owner Robert Kraft is embraced by Colts center Jeff Saturday in 2011 | Rob Carr/Getty Images

The most incredible thing about Kraft’s involvement in negotiations is that he was also going through a period of personal turmoil. At the time, Kraft’s wife Myra was in the final stages of a cancer battle. She passed away just five days before the NFL and players settled on a new CBA. Kraft and his wife had been married for 48 years.

That collision of personal grief and professional relief will forever be remembered in a photograph of Kraft hugging then-Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday. Saturday was one of the NFL Players Association’s chief negotiators.

Just before the photograph was taken, reports ESPN, Saturday praised Kraft as someone “who helped us save football.” Saturday also called out Kraft’s late wife by name — a tribute that, to judge by the photograph taken a few seconds later, clearly touched Kraft in a deep way.