I know I sound like a broken record when I urge you to go read Don Van Natta Jr.’s and Seth Wickersham’s latest piece of thoroughly reported NFL kremlinology for ESPN, but: Go read it. All of it. There are a dozen different items and themes that warrant highlighting, and a few of them are going to get a lot of interest today—like one owner quietly gauging Adam Silver’s interest in running for NFL commissioner (he had none); like Jerry Jones’s threat to Roger Goodell after Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension, “if you think Bob Kraft came after you hard, Bob Kraft is a pussy compared to what I’m going to do”—but this piece, to me, stands most strongly as an indictment of Goodell’s entire tenure.
The story is nominally about Jones’s war with Goodell over the Elliott suspension, but it is effectively a chronicle of Jones’s—and, crucially, other owners’—long-standing grievances with the way Goodell has run the league. And whether it intends to be or not, it makes a strong case that the owners have good reason to be dissatisfied.
Think of what has happened in the NFL since Goodell took over in 2006. It feels like it has been nothing but scandal, and that every single one became so much worse than it needed to be. Spygate. Bountygate. Deflategate. Michael Vick. Ray Rice. Ezekiel Elliot. The failing London play. The potentially disastrous Los Angeles relocations. The replacement refs. Concussions.
Through it all, Goodell remade the power structure of the NFL, hiring executives to create a top-level bureacracy, often with the idea of improving optics—showing the world the league cares about domestic violence or player safety—but in reality just cramming the kitchen with cooks, and increasingly cutting the owners themselves out of the decision-making. The advisability of minimizing the power of the people whose money is at stake is...debatable.
What troubled Jones more than the crises was the way Goodell had responded. In most cases, Goodell expanded the power of the league office and broadened its scope, adding executives, many of whom are paid seven-figure salaries and given generous operating budgets. Among others, Goodell named former lobbyist Jeff Miller to oversee the league’s health and safety policy in response to head injuries; former Manhattan prosecutor Lisa Friel to investigate criminal allegations in the wake of Rice; longtime sports executive Tod Leiweke in 2015 as chief operating officer to manage the new cabinet; and in 2016, former White House spokesman and league consultant Joe Lockhart to run public relations and attempt to rehabilitate Goodell’s image. Some owners, most notably Jones, quietly questioned the wisdom of such moves — especially the hiring of Friel. Before her position was established, Jones argued to owners in a closed-door meeting that creating its own law enforcement arm might not solve the problems of the NFL and would, more likely, create a new set of them.
The piece reports that Bob Kraft referred to the league office as “bloated,” and there is real palace intrigue here, with Van Natta’s and Wickersham’s reporting indicating that Goodell’s shadow government is viewed by the owners as anything ranging from incompetent to superfluous to being an office full of Rasputins who have turned Goodell into a paranoid, ineffective leader.
[O]wners also feel that Goodell hasn’t been served well, especially by Miller on player health, Lockhart on the league’s overall image and Pash on player discipline. Sensing that many of his executives are afraid of him and seem unwilling to offer objective counsel on vital issues, Goodell has become exhausted and distrusting — yet more determined to succeed. Owners grumble that, as a result, Goodell has marginalized many executive vice presidents, including Leiweke — and that they have even marginalized themselves, often leaving Goodell unsupported.
“The executives want to protect themselves by isolating Roger,” one owner says. “They don’t care if they burn the league down to keep their jobs.”
This article is replete with telling examples of the disconnect between the owners and the league office, and the ineffectual and often self-defeating actions of Goodell and his inner circle. Like Jerry Jones blowing up during a meeting when the league explained why teams would no longer be allowed to post game highlights on their own websites and social media accounts, throwing up his hands and exasperatedly telling the room “I don’t know why it has to be that difficult.” Like the owners rolling their eyes during a league presentation that referred to as the NBA, clearly the league most equipped to surpass the NFL in terms of popularity, as “eroding.” “Do you buy this bullshit?” one owner asked another.
The tension, building over the last decade and coming to a head with the war over Roger Goodell’s contract negotiations, is actually pretty easy to identify. The owners believe, and are correct in believing, that Goodell has handled many things very, very poorly, and has set up a fat, sloppy system where they will continue to be handled poorly. But at the same time, the owners have made money hand over fist. The NFL, even with increasing challenges, prints money. The profitability has only increased under Goodell’s watch.
But the question at hand is about how much Goodell has to do with that success. Is football the biggest sport in the country because of Goodell’s leadership, or in spite of it? Would the NFL be even more profitable if he hadn’t botched so many major decisions? Is he just an empty suit, an easily replaceable figurehead who doesn’t deserve to be making more than $40 million a year?
I have a suspicion that that last one is exactly what certain owners like Jerry Jones would like the commissioner to be. They want a cipher, and they want to go back to the old days when the owners actually ran the league. Goodell’s power comes from consensus, but there is no consensus among ownership, and in that vacuum the commissioner has emerged as a figure with real power. That’s increasingly less acceptable for the owners who turned the NFL into the juggernaut it is, and are seeing themselves marginalized by the massive machine Goodell has constructed on Park Avenue.
“Nobody knows what to expect from the league office,” an unnamed owner tells ESPN. “Who’s really making decisions?”
It often only becomes apparent where the power lies when the power players finally turn on each other. Well, here we are.