Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 19, 2017

Among NFL Owners, Threats Of A Civil War

It’s been more than half a century since the Beatles told us that money “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Now we’ve learned that it also can’t buy tranquility among the billionaires who comprise the elite club of NFL team owners. These uber-rich are waging an increasingly public war over whether and what to pay their primary hired serf, a mere multi-millionaire, league commissioner Roger Goodell.

The combatants in this conflict are mostly old men. More than half the team owners are over 70, and half of the ones who aren’t are second generation owners. The only women with ownership stakes have similarly had it handed down from their fathers. Surely this is a group of the fabled 1% who would just as soon stay out of the public eye unless they are being handed the Vince Lombardi Trophy by Goodell as confetti rains down following a Super Bowl.

Alas for these titans, 75-year old Dallas owner Jerry Jones has made it certain that their current labors will not unfold with little public notice. The bombastic Cowboys owner has launched a very personal crusade against Goodell. In a move not seen since the good old days of the late Raiders owner Al Davis, Jones has publicly threatened to sue his fellow franchise owners if Goodell is not shown the door.

Six months ago, life was much more bucolic in the inner sanctum of the NFL. That’s when all 32 owners voted unanimously to extend Goodell’s tenure as commissioner for another five years, from the expiration of his current contract in 2019 until 2024. At that same owners meeting the task of hammering out the contract details was delegated to a six-member compensation committee chaired by Arthur Blank, the 75-year old owner of the Atlanta Falcons. The other committee members are the owners of the Chiefs, Giants, Patriots, Steelers and Texans. Initially Jones was included as a non-voting member of the committee, but he was stripped of that role two weeks ago in the wake of his litigation threat.

The committee went about its business with no public fanfare for months. In mid-August the Sports Business Journal reported and ESPN confirmed that a deal was nearly complete, with terms expected to be similar to Goodell’s current contract. In 2015 the commissioner was paid $32 million. That was the last year before the NFL surrendered its tax-exempt status, so the league’s tax returns are no longer public, but Goodell is believed to have made well over $200 million during his first ten years as commissioner. Whatever one thinks of his performance it has been a remarkable career arc from 23-year old administrative intern in the league office to the most powerful man in sports, as Goodell has been named in various rankings by the likes of Sports Illustrated and the Sporting News.

But even as the media was reporting that a new contract was at hand, Jerry Jones was having second thoughts about the man who he once said “has done an amazing job for the game.” The catalyst for Jones’s reconsideration was the league’s announcement on August 11th that the Cowboys’ star running back Ezekiel Elliott was being suspended for six games after a yearlong investigation into allegations of domestic violence. Elliott appealed the suspension through the NFL Players Association, and as that appeal wound its way through the league’s internal processes and eventually the courts, the status of the suspension seemed to change at every stop. Elliott continued to play until ten days ago, when a three-judge federal appeals court panel denied his request for an emergency injunction. Elliott sat out the Cowboys’ Week 10 loss to the Falcons, and then announced that he was dropping any further appeals.

As Elliot sits Jones fumes, with Goodell the target of his wrath. ESPN reported just this week that when Goodell phoned Jones to tell him about his decision to suspend Elliot last August, Jones replied, “I’m going to come after you with everything I have.” In a reference to Goodell’s suspension of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady over Deflategate, Jones added, “If you think Bob Kraft came after you hard, Bob Kraft is a pussy compared to what I’m going to do.” Jones has issued the lawsuit threat to block the contract renewal, demanded that all 32 owners vote again on any contract, and has retained David Bois, one of the most respect litigators in the country. The Cowboys owner is also believed to be the source of leaks over Goodell’s contract demands, which supposedly included a $50 million annual salary and lifetime access to a private jet and health care for his family. It should be noted that compensation committee chair Blank has denied that the commissioner made such demands.

On the surface Jones seems to have consolidated support for Goodell among the other owners. League sources now say the contract should be done “shortly,” though when that was first reported three months ago it proved premature. However, the compensation committee in a letter to Jones rebuffed his suggestion that the NFL’s constitution was being violated. Earlier Jones was threatened with penalties if he continued “conduct detrimental to the league,” which could range from a loss of draft picks to a suspension. Jones mocked the threat in a radio interview.

There is no one to cheer for in this battle within the billionaire’s boys club. Overall the owners are loyal to Goodell because under his stewardship league revenue has ballooned, and the value of every franchise has grown accordingly. Billionaires tend to think kindly of those who help provide a positive return on their investments. But the owners risk being woefully shortsighted, for the reality is that there are compelling reasons to end Goodell’s tenure.

The NFL still can’t come to grips with the life-threatening aspects of its product. Just last week there were multiple instances of players appearing to be concussed, but quickly returning to the game. Chris Nowinski, director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, tweeted about the most egregious, an injury to Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Goodell has set the example for the rest of the league, remaining detached and often condescending about the dangers of concussions and the risk to football players of CTE.

He has also consistently mishandled disciplinary issues, veering wildly back and forth from extraordinarily lax in his initial Ray Rice ruling to overly tough in the cases of Brady and Elliott. His refusal to adopt clear standards have only made Goodell look impetuous.

The league’s halting and unsure response to player protests is one more problem. Goodell has appeared to want it both ways, appeasing his billionaire, conservative and white bosses while trying not to antagonize his socially conscious players, many of whom are African-American. Meanwhile the elephant in that room remains Colin Kaepernick, still unsigned despite any number of lesser quarterbacks having been given roles on various teams.

Then there are the declining television ratings, an unsurprising result given all the issues listed above. Other than a feeble effort to shorten commercial breaks, Goodell and the NFL have had no answer to that problem.

If Jerry Jones really wanted to go after Roger Goodell and block his contract renewal, he had plenty of good reasons to do so. But instead he chose to make his fight all about Goodell’s decision to suspend Elliott and the impact on the Cowboys. Of course, when one is a billionaire, everything in life is probably always about “me.”


  1. A fine summary about the state of the NFL, Mike. I don’t know the answers, but the questions are quite intriguing.

    • With that crew it’s never clear which is larger, their bank accounts or their egos!

      Thanks Allan,

      Michael Cornelius

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