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Answering the tough questions

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PALM BEACH, Fla. -- No, it isn't the easiest of subjects for Robert Kraft to discuss.

His eyes tell you as much. So does his voice.

Yet, Kraft understands.

He understands that what his team, the New England Patriots, did in September sparked a controversy that remains a topic of conversation more than six months later.

He understands that the Patriots illegal video-taping of the defensive signals of the New York Jets, has had plenty to do with creating a major theme for the NFL Annual Meeting for which he and the rest of the NFL's team owners have gathered for this week: Integrity of the game.

It might not be comfortable to talk about, but give Kraft credit for his willingness to face it head-on. During a break in the meetings Monday, he made no attempt to dodge the large group of reporters seeking to interview him in the hallway of the conference area of The Breakers, the hotel hosting the meeting. The press contingent surrounding Kraft was so large, in fact, that after about 15 minutes a league official walked over to announce that Commissioner Roger Goodell was about to have his regularly scheduled daily briefing in another part of the hotel. Otherwise, the commissioner might have ended up with a lot of empty seats in front of him.

Still, a cluster of reporters remained with Kraft. And Kraft continued to answer the tough questions.

"Our team broke a rule the first week of the season," he said. "After that, we were penalized very severely and we carried on with our season."

Bill Belichick, the Patriots' coach, was fined $500,000. The Patriots' organization was fined $250,000 and forced to surrender a first-round draft pick.

Then, New England proceeded to win 18 consecutive games, setting multiple NFL team and individual offensive records along the way, before losing to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.

Kraft wasn't happy that his team broke the rules. But he was extremely proud of the way it responded to what easily was one of the greatest distractions any club could face.

"I think our team did a very good job of not allowing it to distract them and generated a record that was quite unique and quite special," Kraft said. "And since that time, there's never been anything that anyone could question."

He was firm, but not defensive. He acknowledged the additional accusations, which surfaced in the media before Super Bowl XLII, that the Patriots videotaped the walk-through practice of the St. Louis Rams before Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002.

However, Kraft did not express concern that his team was guilty of any wrongdoing beyond the sideline taping of the Jets' defensive coaches during the 2007 season-opener.

"People can come with allegations," he said. "But you've got to substantiate them. And that didn't happen."

What did happen was, in preparation for the meetings, the commissioner sent a memo to the members of the league's competition committee expressing the need for steps to be taken to prevent any forms of cheating in the future. He wanted a lower threshold to prove that a team has broken the rules and, above all, greater accountability for every owner, club executive, and coach. The committee embraced the commissioner's thoughts, and the steps are likely to be implemented with or without formal approval by the owners.

Another proposal, which the owners are expected to approve this week, calls for a defender to have an electronic device in his helmet to receive defensive signals from a coach the same way a quarterback receives offensive plays. That would eliminate the need for hand signals from the sideline.

"As far as what the commissioner is doing, we're full in support of everything he's recommending so that all 32 teams are abiding by all the rules," Kraft said. "I think the defensive (communication system) is good because it takes away that issue (of stealing signals). People have wondered for decades that people have been looking and trying to understand people's signs.

"So that takes that off the table."

The Patriots video-taping violation, however, might stay there a while longer. Does it taint the Patriots' record-breaking '07 season or their three Super Bowl victories? Kraft doesn't think so. Neither do I.

"As I reflect back on this season, I think years from now -- and I know our fans feel this way -- they'll relish this season and realize how remarkable it was," Kraft said said. "It's something we're pretty proud of. We're sorry it didn't end the way we wanted to, but it was pretty remarkable."

Kraft probably will still find himself answering the tough questions. There is no way to put a positive spin on the illegal video-taping. The very least anyone could hope for is that it might do something to diminish rules violations going forward.

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