The Business-2-Government connections that only sport offers

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating report today about an urgent shipment of 1.2 million N95 masks from Shenzhen, in southern China, to Boston, Massachusetts.

Nothing too remarkable about that.

Except that it took less than two weeks to pull together and was entirely facilitated through sport, specifically the NFL New England Patriots, the connections of the Pats’ ownership and the team’s private Boeing 767 [call-sign ‘Underdog’].

According to the WSJ, plans for the extraordinary shipment started in the third week of last month when Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker struck a deal with Chinese suppliers to acquire more than a million of the N95 masks that have proven so critical in protecting frontline responders from the coronavirus.

The catch was that Baker had to take responsibility for getting the masks from China to the USA.

Even once the Patriots had swung behind the plan, as the WSJ makes clear, there were so many obstacles that still needed to fixed – an avionics upgrade so the jet could fly internationally, visas for the whole crew which could only be issued from New York, and then the tricky issue of actually getting permission to land at a time of serious political and biosecurity tensions.

Experienced China watchers would probably have said, Mission Impossible.

And when permission was finally granted it was for a very specific window: a maximum of 3 hours from landing to takeoff. Not a minute more. [They turned around in 2 hours and 57 minutes].

‘I’ve never seen so much red tape in so many ways and obstacles that we had to overcome,’ said Robert Kraft, the Patriots’ owner, whose final letter requesting permission to enter Chinese airspace was sent on March 30. ‘In today’s world, those of us who are fortunate to make a difference have a significant responsibility to do so with all the assets we have available to us.’

This is Governor Baker welcoming the Patriots 767 and their precious shipment.

Although known as the ‘New England’ Patriots, the franchise was originally the Boston Patriots but never had a home stadium in the city. It wasn’t until stadium relocation moved the team to Foxborough in 1971, less than 30 miles from Boston, that the franchise took on the New England name.

In October 2017, local broadcaster WPRI previewed the very first trip that the Patriots made on their 767 – this was the first time an NFL team had their own private, commercial aircraft.

Jonathan Kraft – son of Pats owner Robert and team president in his own right – speaks at 1.12. Jonathan was critical in stitching together the ambitious plan as he also serves as he also serves as chairman of the board at Massachusetts General Hospital, one of the country’s most renowned facilities.

For airplane tragics like this writer, this is the 767 coming into land at Boston’s Logan International with their precious N95 cargo, along with pilot and air traffic control communication. The 767-300 was delivered to American Airlines as N366AA on September 1992 – eight years before the Patriots won the first of their six Super Bowls.

Endnote: the Patriots and New York Jets have one of the most famously disputatious rivalries in the NFL.

But in a nod to the grave situation that the whole country is facing, but New York state in particular, about a quarter of the N95 masks will be gifted to New York.

According to the WSJ, a bond between the Patriots and Jets that was greater even than playing rivalry was established after the 9/11 attacks, when – by chance – the NFL schedule meant it was those two teams who played in the first weekend of games after the attacks.

This is a short feature from the New York Jets remembering 9/11 and, from 7.01, that emotional matchday when the two teams met. Be ready to feel the emotions that only sport can generate.

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Charlie Charters is a former rugby union official and sports marketing executive turned thriller writer whose debut book Bolt Action was published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2010.
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