Pittsburgh is still attempting to trade Burnett, as general manager Kevin Colbert explained to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette (Twitter link). But if the Steelers aren’t able to find a trade partner willing to take on Burnett, Colbert confirmed the club will release the veteran defensive back.
According to Burnett’s agent, the safety requested the move. A source told Fowler that “the team and player discussed trade possibilities before the release.” We heard a couple of months ago that Burnett was unhappy and wanted to be released, and now he’s getting his wish, although a bit later than he had hoped.
When the move becomes official, Burnett will have made it just one year into the three-year, $14.5MM pact he signed last March. Burnett is 30 now, and not the player he once was with the Packers. He also missed five games with injury last year, and four games the year before that. Th 2010 third round pick had six passes defended and 30 tackles last year in his part-time role, although he did still receive slightly above average marks from Pro Football Focus.
“This dude was just a natural at it,” Haley, the Hall of Fame pass-rusher, told USA TODAY Sports, referring to the talented-yet-oft-absent former Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle. “But he was overweight and everything else. He just didn’t want to play. He gets a high ankle sprain and didn’t come to work. They couldn’t find his ass for three weeks. Guess he was in the house, smoking weed.”
Irving, 25, performed his stunning social media episode earlier this month, days after the NFL issued an indefinite suspension. Last week, he revealed to USA TODAY Sports that he has struck a deal with a California-based company that produces beverages containing cannabidiol (CBD) – and elaborated on some of the salient points he expressed on Instagram in contending that the NFL needs to change its drug policy because of the (purported) medical benefits of marijuana.
He also indicated that he has been diagnosed with several medical conditions – including manic depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder – that he attributes to concussions suffered while playing in the NFL.
“Everybody wants to love him because he’s articulating some good points,” Haley said. “But it’s like, ‘You signed up for this. Nobody twisted your arm. You knew the NFL rules when you signed up. Now you’re using it as an excuse, so you can have a platform.’ “
It’s a delicate matter, sad on levels that extend far beyond what an immensely talented player offered on the field. Many of us may never relate to challenges that someone encounters with substance abuse, addictions or mental illnesses. Irving’s situation includes full custody of his 7-year-old daughter.
Yet Haley, who maintains ties with his two former teams, the Cowboys and 49ers, has a deeper perspective than most. Throughout his career, he battled bipolar disorder, for which he was treated with medication and counseling, and was involved in a series of explosive encounters that underscored his issues. His compassion for Irving, though, has a limit.
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“I hate putting a brother down,” said Haley, who was once thrown out of Bill Walsh’s office for stomping on teammate Roger Craig in practice, “but I’m not going to lay down and allow somebody to say, ‘Uncle.’ … You need counseling.”
Reflecting this week on his experiences that were far different from what we know of Irving’s situation, Haley insists his love of the game and the structure of the NFL environment allowed him to function effectively (as only Tom Brady has won more Super Bowls as a player). But he admits he didn’t embrace counseling until he had finished his 12-year NFL career.
“It’s not one-size-fits-all,” Haley added of counseling efforts. “I didn’t want to talk to no white man. Or a white woman. I wanted a … black woman, like my mom.”
In Irving’s case, the frustration with the Cowboys was wrapped with the sense that the extremely talented player wasn’t fully committed to efforts of support that extended beyond formal programs and included the typical hands-on involvement from team owner Jerry Jones.
While praising Jones, Irving told USA TODAY Sports that Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said, “I should just quit, smoke all the weed I want.”
Garrett did not respond to a request from USA TODAY Sports for comment.
Now Irving is trying to position himself as a change advocate. Like it or not, he added a layer to debate about how the next NFL drug policy will be crafted, ostensibly in the league’s next labor deal following the 2020 season.
Some of Irving’s points, such as the notion that marijuana can be a better alternative for treating some injuries and pain than opioids that he maintains are regularly prescribed by NFL doctors, may have merit when considering that more than 30 states now allow for legalized medicinal marijuana to treat various conditions. That’s one of the principle arguments for relaxing the league’s drug policy, perhaps even to the extent that it doesn’t test for marijuana at all.
The NFL’s stance, often uttered by Commissioner Roger Goodell, is that the league will allow science to guide its view on the medical benefits of marijuana – which at this point is viewed by the league as still inconclusive.
The debate in the context of Irving? Worthy cause. Wrong person to carry the banner.
Marvin Washington, the former NFL defensive lineman-turned-cannabis activist, wonders whether Irving damaged his credibility with the poor optics of the Instagram video.
“If it’s medicine, present it as medicine,” Washington told USA TODAY Sports. “When you do that, you feed into the stereotype that it’s not medicine, it’s just getting high.”
Nonetheless, Washington, vice president of development for Isodial, a Vancouver-based pharmaceutical company with several products containing CBD, said he would support Irving’s advocacy. He’s just puzzled by the actions that feed the perception that Irving, whose one-year contract in 2018 was worth $2.9 million, is willing to blow the opportunity to earn millions of dollars so that he can smoke weed unencumbered.
Then again, Irving’s actions also might just plain underscore the severity of other issues.
“It takes big (courage) to do what he did,” said Washington, who played 11 NFL seasons with four teams and won a Super Bowl ring with the Broncos. “If he’s true to himself, there’s no amount of money that would be enough for him to continue to play.”
Surely, it’s not as simple as contending that a player must continue to play for the money if his heart isn’t in it – even after playing so many years without collecting a dime before reaching the NFL. Given the long-term health risks associated with football, personal considerations are certainly valid.
Yet if smoking marijuana was essential to Irving’s case, that still could have been achieved inside the NFL’s policy. The window to test players who have never tested positive for the drug opens on April 20, while players who tested positive can graduate out of the random testing program by staying clean for two years.
“He has a legitimate point,” Washington said of Irving. “But he has to understand that the NFL isn’t there yet. He could have stayed on the inside as an advocate.”
Washington estimates that 70 percent of NFL players use marijuana, but he intimates that most never enter the drug program because they are clean during the testing window. He expects that ultimately, the policy will be a moot point, but as it stands now …
“The NFL’s policy is humiliating,” he said. “It’s out of step with the times.”
That’s sounds a lot like Irving’s key points. But rather than argue against the policy as an active player with loads of unfulfilled potential, Irving now can make his case while pitching products for Ghost Beverage.
Maybe that’s a fitting encore for a man who went “ghost” on the Cowboys.
What I’m Hearing: TCPalm reporter Will Greenlee has the latest on whether or not New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft could dodge the solicitation charges currently facing him. USA TODAY
NFL power rankings, post-free agency (mostly) edition:
1. Patriots (1): Until proven otherwise, right? They dealt for DL Michael Bennett but were minor players in free agency, letting DE Trey Flowers, LT Trent Brown and others go. But this is New England — expect an ace to emerge from Bill Belichick’s cut-off sleeve at some point, likely nearer draft.
2. Chargers (5): Stop furrowing your brow. Bolts’ 12-4 record in 2018 regular season matched Kansas City as AFC’s best. Healthy TE Hunter Henry and full season from DE Joey Bosa could make significant difference. LB Thomas Davis was nifty pickup.
3. Saints (2): RB Mark Ingram and C Max Unger are gone, but band essentially intact. Primary question is how will it sound after last show was cut short?
4. Chiefs (3): Remains to be seen how their free agency choices pan out and how well personnel fit Steve Spagnuolo’s defense. WR Tyreek Hill’s legal situation bears close monitoring.
5. Rams (4):Mystery surrounding Todd Gurley’s knee only seems to be deepening. NFC champs must also avoid Super Bowl hangover while proving New England didn’t decode Sean McVay’s offense for rest of league.
1. Patriots (1): Until proven otherwise … They dealt for DL Michael Bennett but were minor players in free agency, letting DE Trey Flowers, LT Trent Brown and others go. But this is New England — expect an ace to emerge from Bill Belichick’s cut-off sleeve at some point, likely nearer draft. Christopher Hanewinckel, USA TODA
The Steelers have agreed to sign linebacker Mark Barron to a two-year, $12MM deal, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN.com (Twitter link).
Barron, 29, was released by the Rams earlier this month in a move that saved Los Angeles $6.5MM in cap space. He was due a $5MM base salary and a $3MM roster bonus in 2019, so Barron won’t recoup his single-season earnings under his new contact with the Steelers.
A former safety, Barron was traded from the Buccaneers to the Rams during the 2014 campaign. In each of his first two full seasons with Los Angeles, Barron posted at least 100 tackles, and compiled 16 tackles for loss in 2016. The No. 7 overall selection in the 2012 draft, Barron has 104 appearances and 93 starts under his belt.
Pittsburgh is in need of help at inside linebacker, as neither Vince Williams nor Jonathan Bostic graded as a top-40 LB league-wide in 2018, per Pro Football Focus. Specifically, the Steelers needed to reinforce their second-level pass defense after ranking 31st in DVOA against opposing tight ends and 15th against running backs, according to Football Outsiders.
The Steelers have only ~$6.8MM in cap space, so Barron’s deal — even if it likely has a cheap cap charge in 2019 — will push them closer to the brink. Given that he was cut, Barron won’t factor into Pittsburgh’s compensatory pick formula.
SportsPulse: Will Robert Kraft face actual jail time? Will the video inside the spa ever be released? A.J. Perez breaks down what’s next for the Patriots owner legally. USA TODAY
In May 1975, a former dress manufacturer named Harry Kraft died in Boston and left his son Robert an “ethical will” — a Jewish custom that typically shares lessons of life upon death.
Robert Kraft disclosed that message to USA TODAY Sports in 1997:
“Remember the legacy I’m trying to leave you is a good name,” the father told the son. “It is a man’s most precious asset.”
Forty-four years later, that asset is being publicly tested like never before despite a lifetime of philanthropy and goodwill. After making a fortune in the paper and packaging business, Robert Kraft donated hundreds of millions to various causes and has led the New England Patriots to six Super Bowl wins since buying the team in 1994. In January, he even was awarded the so-called “Jewish Nobel” prize by the Genesis Prize Foundation for his commitment to Israel and Jewish values.
Kraft, 77, has developed an especially eccentric image as an NFL owner, drawing parallels to the 1986 movie “Back to School” — in which an older wealthy businessman goes to college and becomes popular on the party scene.
In Kraft’s case, he’s become known for wearing sneakers with business suits and dating a woman nearly half his age. He danced on stage with rapper Cardi B at a Super Bowl party this year. He even sported gaudy jewelry and hung out with other rap stars at the NBA All-Star game in Charlotte.
Given his personal history, the situation is both confounding and not entirely surprising, depending on which chapter of his life is being considered. Either way, Kraft’s larger story has taken a sad twist, with many who know him urging caution about jumping to conclusions.
“I’m confident that in a matter of weeks things will come out about that, that it will be clearer,” said Steven Comen, a friend of Kraft’s since kindergarten.
Comen knows Kraft as a generous friend whose family didn’t own a car, whose father served as lay leader at the synagogue and whose core values of helping others were formed by age 13. Others recently have seen a more wild side and question whether he’s been trying to fill a void of loneliness after his wife of 48 years died of ovarian cancer.
“He’s been pretty open, at least he was with me, about how he was just so set adrift after his wife died,” said Mark Leibovich, author of a book published last year about NFL owners entitled Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times. “I think it’s just sort of an odd, kind of goofy but ultimately kind of sad story.”
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To gain a better understanding of Kraft’s trajectory, USA TODAY Sports delved into his background through various sources, including historical records that show a public life that can be divided into three parts, each with threads running through today.
The Braves and business
Kraft and Comen, an attorney in Boston, grew up in Brookline, Mass., and were fans of the nearby Boston Braves of baseball.
They viewed the Braves, who moved to Milwaukee in 1953, as a more welcoming team with a more blue-collar fan base than the Red Sox. Unlike the Red Sox, who became the last team to racially integrate (in 1959), the Braves’ roster included an African-American center fielder, Sam Jethroe, and a Jewish outfielder, Sid Gordon.
Both played for the Braves in the early 1950s, when Comen and Kraft were about 10 years old. This was a big moment in time for them and the larger world, shortly after World War II and after the founding of Israel in 1948.
“It was something that we as kids saw as the right thing, to see a Jewish player and black player,” Comen told USA TODAY Sports. “In those days, for that to be true was pretty special.”
Years later, Kraft spotted Myra at a Boston restaurant during a break from his college studies at Columbia. They married in 1963, a bond made stronger because of their shared family values. Myra’s father, Jacob Hiatt, was born in Lithuania and had several family members die during the Holocaust, including both parents.
In Massachusetts, Hiatt became a successful businessman, serving as boss of a box and paper company called Rand-Whitney. His son-in-law later joined the company, purchased a controlling stake and then built a larger diversified business.
Kraft eventually amassed enough wealth to own a sports team — the Boston Lobsters of World Team Tennis.
His ownership of the Lobsters also was the reason for his first mention in a major newspaper outside Boston, according to USA TODAY Sports research. It came in 1978, when Martina Navratilova starred for the team and Myra Kraft was quoted in the Washington Post about how she had asked members of the Cape Cod Conservatory to play the national anthem for the event that night.
“The woman said she might be able to round up eight woodwind players,” Myra Kraft said. “Then they heard the match was going to be on TV. Suddenly 40 musicians showed up, all looking for the cameras.”
Similarly, attention from that team ownership became a small tease for the fame that came later for Kraft.
Myra Kraft wasn’t exactly crazy about buying the Patriots in 1994 for a then-record $172 million. She described football as a brutal game and was wary of players with troubled histories.
After the 1996 player draft, the Boston Herald reported Kraft didn’t want to pick Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips out of fear of recrimination from his wife.
Phillips had a history of domestic violence, troubling Myra, who also noticed that one of the Patriots’ draft picks that year, Nebraska’s Christian Peter, had pleaded no contest to sexual assault. “This Nebraska must have some student body,” Myra Kraft said. The team renounced its rights to Peter shortly thereafter.
Similarly, she had worried football would detract from their mission.
“She said, ‘If you buy the team, I don’t want it to reduce a single dollar of what we can give to charity,’ ” sports consultant Marc Ganis told USA TODAY Sports. Ganis works with NFL owners and knew the couple. “He promised her that would be the case,” Ganis said.
The team since has increased its value to $3.8 billion last year, second only to the Dallas Cowboys, according to Forbes. The first six years still had bumps for Kraft, who didn’t return a message seeking comment for this story, along with several family members and others who know him well.
He had a falling out with Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells after the 1996 season, then fired a future Super Bowl winning coach, Pete Carroll.
“I think we have to reassess the whole organization,” Kraft said after Carroll’s firing in January 2000.
They hired Bill Belichick as the new head coach and drafted Tom Brady in the sixth round as quarterback. All six Super Bowl wins came after that — a surge of success that has helped elevate Kraft on an international stage with powerful friends such as President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is expected to present Kraft with the Genesis Prize in June.
In June 2003, Kraft and his wife celebrated their 40th anniversary at Gillette Stadium, where legendary singer Elton John entertained a private party that included Brady, Trump and then-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
By then, Kraft’s name was becoming so big as Patriots owner that he’s often presumed to be the maker of Velveeta cheese and Jell-O for Kraft Heinz, the giant food company in Chicago. He’s not. In fact, Kraft’s family name stems from that of his paternal grandfather, Louis Krafchinsky, who had five children, including Harry, whose charitable standards matched his daughter-in-law’s.
True to her wishes, the Patriots platform has allowed Kraft to raise and donate more money for causes such as education, health and medicine. That continued after the death of Myra, who also is survived by four adult sons.
“He’s got kids and grandchildren and friends all over the world, but it’s not the same,” Comen said. “When you are as blessed as he was to have a kindred spirit, like Myra was with him, then it’s always going to be lonely without her, and nothing can change that.”
“What is true is how important Myra was to him and how devastated he was by her death,” Comen said. “But that doesn’t mean he’s some crazy old coot now who’s lost his bearings.”
“Crazy” doesn’t describe it. “Lonely” might be a better word after a loss that big. In his book about NFL owners, Leibovich wrote that Kraft’s collection of “friends half his age” is often the first thing people mention about him. “They do so with both mockery and envy,” Leibovich wrote.
The changes in his public image still coincide with Myra’s passing, including even his public political brand:
► A longtime supporter of Democrats, Kraft recently has been tight with Republican Trump, who contacted Kraft to comfort him after his Myra’s death. “Bobby was very touched by that,” Comen said. Trump had been known to covet owning an NFL team and reportedly was in the mix for the Patriots before 1994. The bond between the two particularly strengthened during Kraft’s mourning of his wife.
► About a year after Myra’s death, Kraft began dating Ricki Noel Lander, 39, an actress he met at a party in Beverly Hills. After she had a baby daughter in 2017, a Patriots spokesperson took the unusual step of issuing a statement that asserted Kraft was not the biological father. “There’s something a little bit off about things like that,” Leibovich said. “I mean, you have about as buttoned-down of a football guy at the top of that organization in Bill Belichick, and then you have wacky stuff coming out like that.”
► Kraft also began the practice of wearing sneakers with formal dress around 2011 after being bothered by pain in stiffer shoes. He now has his own Nike model whose sales benefit the Boys & Girls Club of Boston. “Bobby understood from an early time that if you build up your personal brand, there is great power in that personal brand,” Comen said, explaining how he uses sneakers to benefit charity.
In February, Kraft and his sneakers arrived at the Super Bowl accompanied by rock star Jon Bon Jovi and entertainer Kevin Hart.
► Last year, Kraft visited rapper Meek Mill in prison and called for him to be released as part of a criminal justice reform effort he’s pushing with Kraft’s friend, Michael Rubin, the 46-year-old co-owner of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. Mill had been imprisoned under questionable circumstances and was among those with Kraft at the All-Star Game this year.
► Then there are the Hollywood parties, often around awards season. This year, Kraft was spotted making the rounds during the same weekend the news broke about the spa in Florida. Leibovich, who interviewed and observed Kraft and other owners for his book, described Kraft as a “star (expletive).”
“He’s a pretty needy guy in his own way,” Leibovich told USA TODAY Sports. Some of it, he said, could come from feeling as if he’s third-fiddle on his own team, a secondary attraction to Brady and Belichick. Some behaviors seem to fit another pattern, too.
“Generally, what happens when a man loses his wife is he kind of loses his sense of purpose and direction,” said Abel Keogh, a relationship coach who has authored books about relationships with widowers after his own wife died in 2001. “Usually, wives have kind of a grounding effect on their husbands. It’s common for widowers old and young to start dating again quickly. They’re looking to fill that hole in their heart.”
Keough isn’t speaking about Kraft’s situation specifically. And Comen scoffs at any notion that his friend came unmoored, saying he’s “more driven to be even more active in even more things.”
Others say this matter won’t affect his legacy in the NFL, if any guilt on his part is limited to the allegations by law enforcement.
“This matter doesn’t define him within NFL circles,” said Ganis, the consultant.
But what about his name beyond that? The Genesis Prize Foundation didn’t return a message seeking comment but has signaled that it will proceed to honor Kraft this year. More recently, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported this week that an advisory board member for the Genesis Prize has stepped down, citing her disappointment with the decision to proceed with honoring the Patriots owner.
His supporters are staying quiet about the Florida case in the meantime.
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