The showdown between Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the league office and fellow owners over Goodell’s pending five-year contract extension has served to further splinter the sport during a tumultuous season in which divisions already were apparent.
The tangible result of the entire episode could be modest, according to several people familiar with the league’s inner workings. They say they consider it a long shot that Jones will sue the NFL and other owners over Goodell’s contract and an equally long shot that the league and owners will take meaningful disciplinary steps against Jones, the owner of a franchise estimated by Forbes to be worth more than $4 billion.
“There’s great unrest that it all went public,” said one person with knowledge of the deliberations of the owners and the league office, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the threat of litigation. The team owners “know it’s frivolous. It’s one giant bluff versus another giant bluff . . . But it has upset people, and it has united them. You put this log on what’s been a bonfire of a season. When you do that, you give people the right to say, ‘We didn’t need this.’ ”
The season has, at various times, pitted owners against players, owners against the White House, an NFL sponsor against the NFL, and owners against other owners. The one missing element has been players vs. players, although there has been an element of different groups of players having varying interests as the league and players have attempted to work through issues related to players’ protests during the national anthem and players’ community activism.
“Nothing is really going right in the NFL right now,” one outsider who deals with both the league office and the players’ side said this week.
It is a season that has included President Trump urging owners to fire players who protest during the anthem; Houston Texans owner Robert McNair enraging players by saying during an owners’ meetingthat the NFL “can’t have the inmates running the prison”; and former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began the players’ protest movement last season, filing a grievance accusing teams of colluding to keep him out of the league.
There have been concerns over sagging TV viewership and there has been criticism of the quality of play on the field. There have been major injuries to star players such as Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, Odell Beckham Jr. and J.J. Watt.
And now there is Jones’s very public opposition to Goodell’s extension, which has persisted to the point that an attorney for the NFL wrote to Jones’s lawyer, David Boies, in a letter: “Your client’s antics, whatever their motivation, are damaging the League and reflect conduct detrimental to the League’s best interests.”
Jones told owners on the compensation committee, which is negotiating Goodell’s contract extension, that he’d hired Boies and was contemplating a lawsuit. In a letter written by a Cowboys attorney, Jones accused Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, the chairman of the compensation committee, of misleading owners about the negotiations with Goodell.
Jones’s aim, he and his associates have said, is to slow the negotiating process so that all owners have time to consider whether paying Goodell so handsomely is wise. Some owners have interpreted it as a move to oust Goodell in what amounts to a temper tantrum by Jones over the six-game suspension given to Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott under the personal conduct policy. Jones has said the two issues are unrelated. He has said he has the league’s best interests at heart.
“We do need to improve,” he said following a Cowboys’ victory over the Washington Redskins late last month, talking about the “challenging times” being faced by the NFL. “There’s no question about that. We need to improve throughout, every constituency in the NFL …. This could be a great occasion for us to look for accountability, get it and move forward in a very productive way.”
Joe Lockhart, the NFL’s executive vice president of communications and public affairs, declined to comment this week on how the league would react to a lawsuit by Jones. He likewise declined to comment on any potential disciplinary action against Jones. Asked what effect the episode is having on the league’s image, Lockhart said during a conference call with reporters, “I think that’s for everyone on this call to decide.”
Some owners have urged league leaders to consider penalties that could include a fine or suspension for Jones or the loss of a draft pick or picks by the Cowboys. There have been reports about the possibility of the league attempting to force Jones to sell the franchise. Jones has dismissed that scenario as laughable, and the person with knowledge of the deliberations of the owners and the league office agreed that is far-fetched.
That was confirmed by the owner of one NFL team who said Thursday the notion that the league would attempt to strip the Cowboys from Jones is “ridiculous.” The owner said Jones would be subject to paying both sides’ attorney fees, under league rules, if he files and lawsuit and might be fined if he sues.
A different person with knowledge of the league’s inner workings said: “It’s escalating threats. He hasn’t toned down his rhetoric. But there hasn’t been a lawsuit, either.”
That person said that Jones has little support from other owners if his ultimate aim is to oust Goodell, adding: “It’s a couple. The main one is Snyder,” referring to Redskins owner Daniel Snyder.
Snyder did not respond to a request for comment made through the Redskins.
Other estimates from within the league and the ownership ranks are that Jones would have a handful of votes, including his own, for a push to get rid of Goodell, and a few more for trying to force Goodell to accept significantly reduced contract terms in a move that could prompt Goodell to walk away. There could be more support, some reports have suggested, for merely attempting to slow the process, with Goodell’s current deal set to run until 2019.
But it all has been a very bad look for the NFL, most observers seem to agree. A number of owners and high-ranking executives with NFL teams said in recent weeks that things are not as splintered within the league as it appears because Jones, in their view, does not have the widespread support he has attempted to portray. But appearances matter at a time when the sport’s long run of popularity and prosperity is being threatened.
Some within the league are wondering what to make of the abrupt reversal by Papa John’s, an NFL sponsor, in apologizing for being divisive when it recently criticized the league for a lack of leadership in dealing with player protests. There have been suspicions by some within the NFL that Jones, who reportedly owns more than 100 Papa John’s franchises, influenced the company’s original statements. Could the about-face signal a cessation of hostilities? Or was it merely a business decision by the pizza maker?
The owner of another team said Thursday that the compensation committee’s deal with Goodell could be completed before or during the December owners’ meeting in Dallas and that the extension will not be subject to a further vote of all the owners, as Jones is seeking. In the meantime, the owner said, “I’m sure there will be more leaks and more letters back and forth.”
The person familiar with the owners’ and league’s deliberations said that New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who once clashed with the league office over the Deflategate scandal, has tried to broker peace behind the scenes in this case. In that way, Kraft could be trying to fill the void in reining in Jones left by the death of universally respected Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney and the diminished profile in leaguewide matters of influential Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson.
According to that person, Goodell’s value to the league remains high in the estimation of most owners because the NFL soon must negotiate new deals with the players’ union and the TV networks and those are Goodell’s strengths. There would be no obvious in-house candidate to succeed Goodell and to turn to an outsider at this point would be extremely risky, said that person, who described Goodell as remaining stoic during the latest crisis while trying to boost the morale of those in the league office and refraining from pushing the owners — his bosses — too hard at this point to complete the extension sooner rather than later.
“There will be a point,” that person said, “where he says, ‘Let’s wrap this up.’… I think it’s a bluff by Jerry to get a better deal [with Goodell] for the owners. But now he’s hardened all the other owners. They don’t like self-generated controversy. They don’t like to be pushed around. And they particularly don’t like to be pushed around in public.”