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Jerry Jones Has Gone Rogue

The maverick owner has long done things his own way, but his latest challenge to the NFL is his boldest yet.

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Jones: James D. Smith via AP; Goodell: Scott Cunningham/Stringer

The only topic hotter in the NFL than every struggling team’s backup quarterback is whoever might end up succeeding Roger Goodell as NFL commissioner. As the executive and public face of a league, Goodell’s role is as much to take the heat that each of the 32 billionaire franchise owners might otherwise face for league operations as it is to manage the NFL’s personnel rules. When the league needs someone to explain its policies around domestic violence, Goodell is the one on camera. When it becomes incumbent on someone to accept the ire of seemingly every man, woman, and child in the greater Boston area as a result of DeflateGate, the chants of “Raaah-Jaaaa!” are directed at Goodell. And when a star player like Ezekiel Elliott receives a suspension after allegations of domestic violence, Goodell is the one who enforces it.

But recently, meting out punishment to a player for has resulted in a virtual civil war within the the league. Jerry Jones, whose franchise, in large part, is currently built around Elliott, has been battling publicly battling Goodell in recent weeks—a feud that seems to have started as the commissioner chose, against Jones’ strong objections, to pursue legal avenues to maintain Elliott’s suspension.

Elliott was accused of domestic violence by his ex-girlfriend, but prosecutors ultimately declined to pursue the case against him. Jones—whose own moral judgment around domestic violence in the past has waffled between “intolerable” and “the Cowboys needed the player to help our team”—says Elliott is “a victim of an overcorrection.” Goodell, meanwhile, is sticking with the league’s domestic violence policy after the NFL did its own investigation. (We posted an explainer about the case in greater detail when the suspension was handed down in August.) Elliott was suspended for six games (prior to the new policy, which went into effect in 2014, a player who abused his partner could get away with a two-game suspension, or less), and he began serving that suspension on Sunday.

As hope for Elliott’s appeals in court has run out, Jones has gone on the offensive against Goodell—and, ultimately, against his fellow team owners—in a way not seen since legendary deceased Raiders founder Al Davis stirred up pounds of trouble for the league. As the New York Times reports:

[E]verything changed when Goodell suspended the Cowboys’ star running back, Ezekiel Elliott, for six games based on an accusation of domestic violence by his former girlfriend. In addition to railing against the decision and questioning the way the commissioner and his staff handled the investigation, Jones began to lobby the compensation committee and other owners to pause and alter Goodell’s new pay deal.

Goodell’s contract runs through the end of 2018. He currently makes $30 million a year, and—as we learned over the weekend—he wants a raise. Specifically, an unnamed owner told ESPN that Goodell seeks $49.5 million a year in his new contract, along with lifetime use of both a private jet and health care coverage for himself and his family. That is a very generous compensation package, but many within the league seem inclined to give it to him.

Jones seems to have recruited high-profile ally in his attempts to unseat Goodell. John Schnatter, CEO of Papa John’s pizza chain (Jones maintains an ownership stake in 120 Texas-based franchises), criticized the NFL’s handling of the national anthem protests, claiming that the league—under Goodell’s leadership—was bad for business. As NBC’s ProFootballTalk reports:

As the source explained it, the primary affront comes from the belief among owners that Jones instigated Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter to disparage the NFL, blaming league leadership for ratings declines and, in turn, a reduction in Papa John’s revenues.

For years, Jones’s clout within the NFL has been near-mythic. He’s been described as the league’s “greatest puppet master,” with the power to relocate other franchises at his whim (he’s frequently cited as the reason the Raiders didn’t move to San Antonio, and also why they ultimately found a comfy arrangement in Las Vegas). He and the Cowboys’ executive leadership team, which consists of his children, are consummate dealmakers—look no further than The Star in Frisco for an impressive example of that—and the way he’s built the Cowboys into the most valuable team in sports is stunning given the competition from European soccer teams. Still, we’re also about to get a real lesson about Jones’s power. Clearly, he’s someone that his fellow owners have listened to in the past. But is he more powerful than a couple dozen other billionaires?

The issue between Jones and Goodell has evolved into a sort-of high-stakes game of chicken. Jones has retained the services of celebrity lawyer David Boies as a threat to sue if they proceed with a contract extension for Goodell. That is not the way of the NFL, at least not since the days of Al Davis filing anti-trust lawsuits against the league. And the NFL, if it chooses, doesn’t just have to beat Jones in the boardroom and in court to retaliate. Let’s go back to ProFootballTalk:

A league source with knowledge of the situation tells PFT that multiple owners already have been discussing the possibility, which flows from Article VIII of the NFL’s Constitution & Bylaws. Specifically, Section 8.13 authorizes the Commissioner to determine that an owner “has been or is guilty of conduct detrimental to the welfare of the League or professional football.” If the Commissioner believes the available sanction (a $500,000 fine) is “not adequate or sufficient,” the Commissioner may refer the issue to the NFL’s Executive Committee, which has the power to compel “[c]ancellation or forfeiture of the franchise in the League of any member club involved or implicated,” with a directive to sell the team.

This is an unlikely outcome, but it’s significant that NFL owners are discussing it—and that they’re leaking word of those discussions to PFT’s Mike Florio (who, as a lawyer, tends to eat up this kind of story). It’s impossible at this point to say how far this battle of the billionaires will go, but it’s the sort of public warring that we haven’t seen among NFL leadership in decades.

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  • Dave Ruth

    There is no question Rodge is holding the CTE Brain Trauma Injury Reports Ransom to get his Million a Week, yea you heard me, MILLION a WEEK & a Private Jet !!……..What an Extraordinary Quality Guy !!!

  • José

    The Jones-Papa John’s story should get more attention. Jones is punishing players for acting as free individuals. Why? Because a greedy rich kid made a huge fuss about it, and viewers are sick of their childish behavior and are boycotting the pizza chain and that hurts Jones’ bottom line. That’s just bizarre. It has absolutely nothing to do with football or the NFL except that Jones is making it an issue.

    It also bears mentioning that even though Kaepernick first took a knee last year it wasn’t a big problem that season. The President at the time was restrained and fair when commenting about on the matter. But this year the big orange doofus blew the whole thing up and created an uproar that divided America.