Roger Goodell could be in trouble. As recently as six months ago that statement would have been, correctly, dismissed out of hand.
The NFL commissioner’s job, perhaps the most powerful position in the business of American professional sports, seemed impervious to any threat, especially the ones of Goodell’s own making.
He survived Bountygate. It was rough for a time, but he made it through the Ray Rice scandal. He skated through Deflategate too, coming out of that with even more legal precedent supporting his disciplinary powers as commissioner.
Owners opted to count their money instead of make a stink. Goodell held a fractious group of 32 billionaires together through the lockout and collective bargaining agreement negotiations in 2011. It was his crowing achievement as commissioner, a deal that saw owners get just about every concession they wanted from players and set up a decade of labor stability and overflowing coffers. Goodell was untouchable because he made the league money.
Now one of the league’s most powerful owners, Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, is threatening to turn his lobbying efforts against Goodell’s contract extension into a full-blown legal fight.
Jones is threatening a coup d’état, or about as close as it gets to that for the NFL, because he doesn’t like that the league hewed to its three-year-old domestic violence policy and gave his star running back, Ezekiel Elliott, a six-game suspension, based on the league’s own investigation.
Even if it doesn’t ultimately result in toppling the commissioner – it’s still a stretch to think that it will – it’s the most serious threat to Goodell’s job since he became commissioner in 2006.
Protecting the Shield is the root of the problem
That same labor deal gives the commissioner unilateral power over personal conduct matters and anything else that falls into the category of “protecting the integrity of the game.”
League commissioners have always had that kind of power. But it’s been Goodell’s signature issue.
Surprise, unchecked power in the hands of one person leads to problems. The examples cited above turned into drawn-out court battles because of the arbitrary nature of the punishments doled out and the flimsy evidence used to justify it.
The league’s domestic violence policy was adopted in 2014 in the wake of the Rice incident. It was supported by Jerry Jones and other owners and actually spelled out levels of discipline for players and league employees involved in those kinds of incidents, starting with a six-game suspension.
However, the league has not been consistent with its punishment since implementing the policy. For example, former Giants kicker Josh Brown got a single game despite a well-documented history of domestic abuse.
You can see why players and the union don’t like Goodell’s role as judge, jury and executioner. They could end up with a short suspension or find their careers on hiatus indefinitely, for reasons that are never quite clear.
Goodell’s given owners plenty of reasons not to like his disciplinary powers too, taking a star quarterback off the field for footballs that may or may not have been deflated, taking away draft picks for free agent tampering claims, etc.
If it bothered the owners, their dissatisfaction never went beyond an anonymous grumble here and there, and most of them, publicly, still gave Goodell a vote of confidence when asked, even during the Rice situation in 2014.
Jones was among the owners voicing their support for Goodell in the fall of 2014. He’s not been so supportive since the league started investigating the prodigious running back from the Cowboys, handing down a six-game suspension before the season started.
Why is Jones so upset with Goodell?
Jones carries a lot of weight in the NFL. He drove the league’s return to Los Angeles and its coming foray into Las Vegas. Few can lead the room full of owners the way the “de facto commissioner” can. So, when he threatens to come after the real commissioner, it’s significant.
There’s a more personal element in the Elliott suspension for Jones too, besides just the potential of losing one of his best players for six games. Jones fought the NFL over its investigation into the accusations against Elliott, who was not charged by Ohio authorities that also investigated him, from the start.
In October 2016, he confronted the NFL’s lead investigator, Lisa Friel, over the matter in a hotel bar after hours at an owners meeting. He told her, “your bread and butter is going to get both of us thrown out on the street.”
In July of this year, he told the press that there was no evidence against Elliott that warranted a suspension. At the beginning of August, Jones was publicly saying that he believed Elliott would not be suspended.
We learned this week that Jones believes Roger Goodell lied to him, telling him that Elliott would not be suspended. Jones called that an “unforgivable breach of trust.”
What’s up with Goodell’s contract?
Goodell’s current contract runs through 2018. The five-year extension would leave him in place through 2024, covering the league’s next scheduled collective bargaining agreement negotiations in 2021.
In the past, Goodell’s annual compensation varied, but reportedly was required to have an average of $25 million in bonus pay over any given three-year period. His yearly was reported at $44 million in 2014 and $34 million in 2015. But his salary is no longer a matter of public record after the NFL surrendered its non-profit status in 2015.
The argument over the new deal is whether to make it even more incentive-based. The contract the committee is working is to be as much as 88 percent incentive-based according to a Nov. 11 report by the New York Times.
But Jones and a few other owners reportedly believe that the incentives are so loosely defined that Goodell’s pay wouldn’t rise or fall too much whatever happened, even with the league facing a number of challenges at the moment – player suspensions, owners fearful of the controversy over protests, ratings in a nosedive, etc.
A curiously timed report from Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen relayed some of Goodell’s contract demands that paint the commissioner in a very flattering light. He wanted $49.5 million per year, a private jet and lifetime health insurance for him and his family, according to an unnamed owner cited in the report.
“That number for Roger just seems too much,” the owner said. “It’s offensive. It’s unseemly.”
The league denied that claim.
We don’t know that Jones or someone from his camp leaked that information to ESPN, but the details it contains do fit with what he’s been saying about the commissioner’s salary since August.
Who has the final approval for Goodell’s deal?
A unanimous 32-0 vote by owners in May authorized the six-member compensation committee to finalize the and approve the extension for Goodell done, and normally that would be the the only vote needed.
Jones’ argument now is that the contract needs to go back to the full ownership group, instead of just the committee, because of the ratings decline, protests, etc.
Goodell is said to be “furious” over Jones’ effort to derail his contract, according to ESPN’s OTL.
“He feels as if the owners have made a lot of money and he should be compensated accordingly,” a source told ESPN’s Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham. “The incentives thing really angers him.”
Jones was a non-voting ad hoc member of the league’s compensation committee, the six owners tasked with finalizing Goodell’s deal. His membership was revoked on Nov. 2 when he informed the group of his threat to sue.
What’s his basis for threatening the lawsuit?
Jones is said to be one of four of five owners who want Goodell gone. There are reportedly another six wavering in their commitment, who Jones hopes to rally to his side with the threat of a lawsuit and hiring a big-name attorney, Davod Boies, to push it.
The OTL report says Jones is trying to change the two-thirds majority vote needed to approve a deal to three-fourths majority, giving his voting bloc guaranteed veto power. Jones’ play with the lawsuit is, in part, to get Goodell’s contract back in front of the full ownership group where he could prevent it from going forward if he can rally a small group of owners to his side.
Jones was supportive of a new contract for Goodell as recently as May. His latest threatening letter to the league makes an issue of what’s happened since then.
He claims that Falcons owner Arthur Blank and chair of the compensation committee were not honest about the details of Goodell’s proposed contract extension, according to a Thursday report from ESPN’s Chris Mortensen.
Jones claims that details of the contract were not disclosed and that the deal moved away from a more incentive-based version. He also alleges that the committee is not unanimous on the deal, going back on Blank’s assurance that the committee would be in complete agreement on it.
The league disputed Jones’ claims with a very direct shot at him.
“Your description of the proposed extension is so at odds with the actual facts that we can only conclude that you are either uninformed or seek deliberately to mislead the other owners.”
When news first broke that Jones was threatening to sue, it was not at all clear what the basis was for the potential lawsuit. This letter clarifies it – he’s trying to get the contract out of the committee’s hands and back to the full group of owners, in the hopes that he can rally enough of them to block Goodell’s deal and send the commissioner packing.
Still, it feels like an awfully flimsy case.
Is this the end for Roger Goodell?
Jones may not have much of a case, but his timing is impeccable.
It’s a strange moment for the NFL. The league was a juggernaut that watched its ratings climb every year, pushing toward Goodell’s stated goal of $25 billion in annual revenue.
Those days are gone.
The NFL skated through mishandled scandal after mishandled scandal without much impact on the bottom line. Now, television ratings are down for the second consecutive season. Owners certainly didn’t like the president turning the sport into a new front in the culture war, and they’re divided on how to respond to the handful of players kneeling during the national anthem to draw attention to police brutality and racial inequality.
There’s plenty for team owners to be concerned with and no real certainty for what to do about it. Jones is using those things as a cudgel in his fight with Goodell.
The question now is how many owners can he actually get on his side. Goodell’s given owners plenty of reasons to be dissatisfied with his job performance, but there’s said to be trepidation about replacing him for an unknown commodity, or worse, a commissioner of Jones’ choosing.
Jones’ moves here are certain to make him more enemies among his peers. The OTL story from Wednesday reports that some owners are upset with Goodell because they feel like he gave Jones too much power in the first place.
NFL owners are not a unified group who all think the same way. In fact, one thing that’s helped solidify Goodell’s status has been his ability to bring them together. Nowhere was he more effective at that than the collective bargaining negotiations in 2011, when he was able to hold together the rift between small market and big market teams, like the Cowboys, to get a deal that enriched all 32 team owners at the expense of the players.
There’s another collective bargaining agreement on the horizon in 2021. Negotiations for that will be even more contentious than the last one. There’s more at stake this time around. Television viewership patterns are changing fast, meaning the NFL might not be able to count on multi-billion dollar rights deals for easy money down the road either.
Having Goodell at the table for the next CBA negotiation was one of the main reasons for getting his contract extension done in the first place. Owners will be leery of switching commissioners with 2021 right around the corner. That might ultimately be Goodell’s firewall against Jones’ palace coup.
I can’t in good conscience endorse either side here. However, the NFL would be better off with Goodell instead of a commissioner handpicked by Jones to carry out his interests and his vision for what the NFL should be.
(Our best hope for 2021 is still going to be players willing to miss games to get a more favorable CBA.)
This has been the most interesting NFL season in a long time, on and off the field. And whatever two teams wind up playing in Super Bowl LII, it’s going to be hard to beat a Jerry Jones versus Roger Goodell matchup. Nothing less than the future of professional football is at stake.
Source: SB Nation
Featured Image: Patch
Inset Image: Getty Images