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Jerry Jones won’t sue the NFL, but he’s not done fighting Roger Goodell

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A handy guide for the biggest matchup of the 2017 NFL season.

MAJOR UPDATE: Goodell just got his five-year extension with a reported value of $200 million for his efforts. That’s less than the commissioner had allegedly asked for, but still a tremendous amount of money. It’s safe to say Jerry Jones is taking the “L” on this one.

Update: Is the fight over? No. But, Jerry Jones said recently, that he would not sue the NFL over Goodell’s contract. However, that does not mean he’s backing off his fight with the commissioner. He probably realized he didn’t have much of a legal leg to stand on.

On the surface, Jones is backing down from his legal threat because he says the compensation committee, the six-owner group tasked with finalizing Goodell’s contract, has gone back to the full ownership group to seek input. But they’re not seeking approval from the group again, and Jones is not going to let that part go. He still wants any contract for the commissioner to come before the entire body of 32 owner representatives.

He’ll reportedly be making that push again when owners meet on Dec. 13.

Much of what is written here still applies. Jones isn’t going to sit idly by and let this go without getting his way somehow. The backgrounder below is still applicable, save the lawsuit, and a good understanding of the underlying tensions between the NFL commissioner, the sport’s most powerful owner and a smattering of other owners who fall somewhere into the mix. —RVB


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 crowning 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.

One of the league’s most powerful owners, Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, threatened to turn his lobbying efforts against Goodell’s contract extension into a full-blown legal fight.

Jones says he’s doing this because he wants to make the commissioner more accountable to owners. “I want unprecedented accountability to the ownership,” is how he described his crusade after the Cowboys’ Week 11 loss to the Eagles. While that might be what he says he wants, it looks more like he wants a commissioner who answers to him specifically.

This is about as close as it gets to a coup d'état 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.

"I'm gonna come after you with everything I have," Jones said after learning the news of Elliott’s suspension, according to a Nov. 17 report from ESPN the Magazine. "If you think Bob Kraft came after you hard, Bob Kraft is a p---y compared to what I'm going to do."

Even if Jones isn’t successful at 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 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 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 who also investigated him, from the start.

In Oct. 2016, Jones 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.

His reason for thinking that stems from a May conversation he had with Goodell. “'Roger told me there was nothing to worry about -- the evidence just isn't there,'" Jones said, according to a source cited in the Nov. 17 ESPN report.

The league denied that Jones was told there would be no suspension.

Needless to say, when the six-game suspension for Elliott was handed down in August, Jones was furious. He believes 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 on 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 ESPN’s Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen relayed some of Goodell’s contract demands that paint the commissioner in a 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. They later said, in the cease and desist letter to Jones, that those contract details were old and outdated ones.

Blank issued a statement on Monday, Nov. 13, that seemed to shoot down some of the claims about Goodell’s deal reported previously. The statement read:

"The Committee is continuing its work towards finalizing a contract extension with the Commissioner, consistent with the mandate provided in the unanimous May 2017 Resolution. Regardless of what may have been reported, the Committee is working within the financial parameters outlined to the ownership at the May meeting. The negotiations are progressing and we will keep ownership apprised of the negotiations as they move forward. We do not intend to publicly comment on our discussions.”

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 and approve the extension for Goodell, and normally that would be 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, David 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 was not honest about the details of Goodell’s proposed contract extension, according to a Thursday report from 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 weak case.

He may not have to sue. Jones could be fighting a delaying action. He could conceivably hold up the proceedings on Goodell’s contract to give himself time to rally enough owners to his cause.

Jones suggested as much in a Nov. 14 interview, telling 105.3 radio station in Dallas “we just need to slow this train down and…discuss the issues at hand in the NFL."

He pressed his fellow owners on that same point a week later. In a letter to owners first reported Nov. 16, Jones asked for a special meeting to address Goodell’s contract.

“This is not the time for the League to undertake massive contractual obligations which are inconsistent with the League’s performance,” he said in the letter.

His request was denied, and owners will use their regularly scheduled Dec. 13 meeting to discuss the issue.

If he can successfully get a delay on finalizing Goodell’s contract, it gives him more time to push his case before the commissioner’s current deal expires in March 2019.

What can the league do about it?

In the most aggressive response yet from the NFL’s compensation committee, Jones got a cease and desist letter on Monday, Nov. 13, threatening him with punishment if he doesn’t drop his effort to block Goodell’s contract extension. Possible punishments include fines, loss of draft picks and a suspension for Jones.

The NFL could punish Jones on the basis that his conduct is detrimental to the league. And, yes, that’s fitting given that personal conduct fueled this fracas in the first place.

A more extreme measure for dealing with Jones has reportedly been discussed by a few owners. The league could force Jones to forfeit the Cowboys, something that the Wall Street Journal reports a few owners have talked about, informally. That’s unlikely to happen, and was probably just a strategic leak put out there to threaten Jones.

He shrugged off the notion that the league could take away his team during his regular Tuesday radio show on Nov. 14.

Jones’ lawyer, Boies, got a letter from fellow owners threatening action for his “antics” that could be considered “conduct detrimental,” according to the New York Times.

If the league does punish Jones, whatever form that takes, he could fight it in court.

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 during 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.

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. The league could use a different commissioner given the missteps Goodell’s made since the 2011 labor deal. The risk in replacing Goodell is that it’s more likely the next commissioner will have to accept a deal more along the lines of the one Jones wants, and that means the new commissioner’s pay would be subject in part to placating Jones. An even worse option is a commissioner handpicked by Jones.

(Our best hope, for fans, in 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 vs. Roger Goodell matchup. Nothing less than the future of professional football is at stake.