The NFL’s Reality TV Mess

Wednesday January 28th, 2015

I have not fully weighed in on “PSI: New England” (a phrase I should have trademarked last week), so here are some thoughts from the perspective of someone who competed with the Patriots from the front office for almost a decade.

First, let’s get the lazy “the Patriots would have won anyway” and “it’s no big deal” narratives out of the way. This is not about the result; it is about the process. If a member of the Patriots, or someone associated with them, knowingly broke an established NFL rule, there should be consequences. If not, end of inquiry.

Most of the systematic issues in the NFL—the draft, salary cap, free-agency restrictions and revenue sharing—were established in the name of competitive balance. Owners have bought into a version of corporate socialism built on the notion that the league as a whole is only as strong as its weakest link. Skirting the playing rules flies in the face of this competitive fairness.

Further, on a macro level, the NFL’s credibility has been at issue all year, and the league has been in a reactive state on domestic violence since the TMZ drop of the Ray Rice elevator video on September 8. Now, with a new, more stringent personal-conduct policy and the soft reprimand of the Mueller Report behind them, the NFL had moved on from a crisis in integrity. Or so it thought…

Patriots paranoia

Patriots owner Robert Kraft and coach Bill Belichick at the sendoff rally in Boston.  Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) Patriots owner Robert Kraft and coach Bill Belichick at the sendoff rally in Boston. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Team officials around the NFL share paranoia concerning the commissioner's and the league office’s perceived favoring of certain teams over others. I say this from experience; in Green Bay our persecution complex stemmed from not having an owner to curry favor and political capital from the NFL.

The Patriots are certainly one of those franchises that raise the antennae of other team officials. Despite the videotaping penalties from 2007, Roger Goodell is known to be very close with Patriots owner Robert Kraft (Richard Sherman is quite aware of this as well); this recent episode further puts that relationship under a microscope.

There is sentiment around the league—fueled, in my opinion, in part by jealousy—that Bill Belichick routinely plays to the edge of the NFL’s rules and regulations without reprimand from the league. Beyond the recent eligible/ineligible receiver substitutions, which are legal but have caused confusion among officials monitoring the tactic, other teams have questioned the way Belichick treats league rules such as those regarding injury reporting and media obligations. Interestingly, while Kraft has a close relationship with Goodell, Belichick seems to have disdain for some league executives and sees them as ruling from an ivory tower with no understanding of the game.

To be clear, while many scorn Belichick’s playing fast and loose with the rules, his skills are universally respected. I remember weeks when we were preparing to play the Patriots. Despite New England being outside our division, in those weeks I saw a heightened sense of purpose from our coaches in getting ready for Belichick. And meeting Belichick and watching him speak at league meetings, I found him to be intelligent, reasoned and measured, belying a perception among his peers—again, perhaps founded in jealousy, perhaps in reality—of someone willing to bend the rules to gain an advantage.

The Investigation

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It was naïve to think that this inquiry would be neatly tied up within a week or two. After being reprimanded about the scope of the Rice investigation by both an arbitrator and Robert Mueller, the NFL is going to be as thorough as possible to ferret out misconduct, no matter the cost. Enter heavyweight attorney Ted Wells, hired last year to examine the toxicity of the Dolphins locker room, to once again lead an investigation, bringing forensic experts along with him. As with all of these investigations, there is no subpoena power or “requirement” that people talk; they can be evasive, non-responsive or not talk at all. This will take some time, with the investigation not even getting to Tom Brady until after the Super Bowl. As for Brady, he is certainly not going to be questioned without lawyers, agents and union representation involved; the stakes are too high.

Now comes a report from Fox Sports about a locker room attendant moving a set of footballs to another area between receiving them from the officials and the start of the game; this will further the intrigue about the Patriots and subterfuge. If true, the Wells investigators will be spending a lot of time with this person and asking about any and all instructions he was given that day. And yes, there will be (locker room attendant) lawyers.

As to potential sanctions if wrongdoing is found, Goodell has often noted a “pattern of behavior” in levying harsh penalties. After the Patriots’ 2007 infractions regarding videotaping, that pattern would be relevant here.

Diminished interest? Not a chance

Despite the numerous off-the-field controversies, investigations and scandals this year—Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy, Ray McDonald, deflated footballs, etc.—all of the NFL’s key business metrics are trending up: television ratings, television contracts, franchise profits and values, etc. Business is booming in spite of (we would hate to think it’s in part because of) the off-field storms. NFL football, for reasons that can be discussed in a sociological debate, appears ingrained in our culture, much the way soccer is in other countries. It truly may be too big to fail.

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THE SAINTS MESS

Having spent my years in the front office as part of the one team that did not have an owner, the Packers, I never experienced reporting to traditional NFL ownership. As for the lack of an owner (beyond our thousands of Cheeseheads), there were pros and cons. On the positive side, we had great autonomy and were free from impulsive owner outbursts that I would hear about from colleagues. On the negative side, there was no singular, moneyed presence to lobby for our interests with the NFL.

Without the day-to-day experience of ownership, sitting in NFL owners meetings felt as if I had crashed an exclusive private party yet no one was kicking me out. Watching owners’ friendly (and not-so-friendly) interplay and listening to their sidebar chatter was a learning experience. I noted that, for better or worse, they have the same frailties and insecurities that we all have, only with a lot more money.

Speaking of which…

Benson Family Feud

Tom Benson and wife Gayle. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images) Tom Benson and wife Gayle. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

An ugly legal battle in New Orleans is now pulling back the curtain on the dysfunctional family dynamic of Saints owner Tom Benson. He recently pulled the silver spoon from family members including granddaughter Rita, prompting a lawsuit full of uneasy details about Benson’s mental competence and the motivations of his wife, Gayle, whom he married in 2004. Benson fired back with a statement, furthering the hostility, with teams of expensive lawyers at the ready. This appears primed to turn nastier before any resolution.

I remember seeing Benson stand up at a league meeting in 2001 and proudly introduce recent Texas A & M graduate Rita, beaming about her potential and granting her a presence in league business from that moment on. Notwithstanding the fact that Rita had no experience in the NFL, if she had Benson’s blessing and endorsement, that was enough for other owners.

In my limited dealings with Rita Benson, I found her professional and competent. It was well known around the league, though, that there was internal friction with other senior members of the Saints, who bristled at her perceived sense of entitlement.

I also remember that a couple of years after he introduced Rita, Benson introduced new wife-to-be Gayle at NFL functions. Benson was clearly smitten and introduced her to everyone, even people like me who ranked below ownership level. He sent an elaborate wedding invitation to all NFL owners (our team president, Bob Harlan, who barely knew Benson, was invited but did not attend).

Now these two women who were so front and center to Benson’s league presence at different times, are the central characters in a nasty family drama playing out on a public stage.

Football operations

The Saints will say all the right things about the feud's having no effect on team operations, as the key people in place—such as capable general manager Mickey Loomis—will continue business as usual. And, in theory, that will be accurate.

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In practical terms, however, there may be situations where a large cash outlay, which usually requires ownership approval, becomes necessary, such as (1) re-signing an important existing player; (2) signing a marquee free agent, (3) restructuring a large contract with signing bonus for cap conversion or (4) releasing a player, with cap and cash consequences.

The Saints are the most cap-strapped team in the NFL, so a marquee free-agent signing seems remote. However, I said the same thing a year ago, and the team scratched and clawed its way to sign safety Jairus Byrd with the most guaranteed money in the 2014 free agent class, $26.3 million. These decisions, which might include a restructuring or even termination of that contract, are C-level ones that would usually require ownership approval.

The Benson family dysfunction raises the question of whether the NFL, which craves stability in ownership, would potentially become involved. Roger Goodell will fully support Benson, who has repeatedly stood behind the commissioner. However, if the allegations regarding Benson’s mental competence are proved valid, the NFL may take a more active role and have someone run point from league headquarters or perhaps even on site, if the situation becomes chaotic. That possibility, however, is a long way off.

For now, the “Saints Family Feud” joins “PSI: New England” as unfortunate and uncomfortable NFL reality shows. Substantial wealth does not immunize a family from dysfunction, and in the case of the Bensons it may be at its root.


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