It was notable enough to dive into the inner battles over the national anthem issue between the league office and owners in a Seth Wickersham/Don Van Natta story for ESPN last week. But it seemed more jarring Sunday when Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen reported that 17 owners participated in a conference call Thursday to explore roadblocking what seemed to be an imminent five-year contract extension for commissioner Roger Goodell.
Last month, Atlanta owner Arthur Blank, the chairman of the league’s compensation committee, told me he believed the Goodell extension absolutely would get done. Another source said he believes Goodell could sign it at any time but has some minor points in the deal he still wants to address. But in the wake of rising discontent among owners over the anthem issue and what sitting and kneeling players are doing to the league’s bottom line with fans and advertisers, the dissatisfaction of strong owners like the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones cannot be discounted. It’s unclear whether the discord between the league office and some owners could lead to the dissolution of the Goodell pact, though it seems unlikely. But the fact that the past five or six weeks have gone by without a resolution of the contract makes it rise in significance as a story.
Jones is a leader and probably the leader against the extension, or at least against the extension in the way it has been presented. In the Wickersham/Van Natta story, Jones was quoted as saying the Goodell contract “is the most one-sided contract ever.” Goodell made about $65 million in salary and benefits in 2014 and 2015, and Jones said he wanted Goodell’s salary to be more incentive-based.
Because it’s uncertain now if Goodell’s contract is fit to be signed today, or if the owners can still try to negotiate the deal down, it may be a moot point. But as one ownership source told me Sunday, Jones wouldn’t be going to this extent if he didn’t think he could affect the final number on Goodell’s deal—or whether there’s a deal at all. This source also said he thought Goodell would react badly to taking any significant pay cut. The league’s total revenue has risen from about $6 billion when Goodell took over the job in 2006 to between $14 billion and $15 billion this year. The source said Goodell thinks he’s done the job the owners hired him to do: markedly increase revenues and be a discipline-minded steward of the game.
Jones is angry at Goodell for suspending the Cowboys’ star running back, Ezekiel Elliott, for six games, which Elliott has fought and won so far; but if he loses another appeal this week, Elliott could miss Dallas’s next six games. Further, it is believed that Jones feels Goodell is too iron-fisted with player suspensions. Until recently, Jones was a steadfast backer of Goodell. But the suspensions have made him increasingly angry. He also cannot fathom how Goodell won’t put his foot down and force players to stand for the anthem. If players don’t stand, Jones is said to think, then so be it—they shouldn’t play.
“Jerry [Jones] is on a mission,” said this ownership source. “I’ve been in the league a long time, and this is as passionate and vocal as I’ve seen him on anything. He wants players to stand, and he obviously wants to do something on Roger’s contract.”
What Goodell is trying to do with the anthem is simple—he’s trying to build some sort of consensus between a group of players who have different interests in civil-rights issues. He feels if he pushes for a consensus too hard and tries to force all players to stand before a deliberate partnership plan with players is agreed to, too many players would splinter off, and there’d be a much larger group of players standing or kneeling for the anthem. It’s a sticky problem.
It’s unclear which owners are among the 17 who participated on Thursday’s call. But it’s easier to make an educated guess which owners want Goodell to push harder to get players to stand: Dallas, Washington and Houston, certainly. Other teams with owners motivated to get players to stand: Detroit, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Tennessee, Cleveland, Carolina, Baltimore, Indianapolis and the Los Angeles Chargers. I repeat: Those are educated guesses, based on interviews with league people in the past few days.
I don’t believe any ownership effort has the 24 votes necessary to force out Goodell. I also don’t believe there are 24 votes to slash Goodell’s compensation right now. And however some owners feel about Goodell, it’s going to be hard in an era of huge NFL wealth to slash his compensation … particularly when the contract extension is going to cover the next labor negotiations, which could be hugely rancorous.
But I’ll repeat something that one owner told me before the last New York meetings 13 days ago: Goodell has so few friends on the player side—he has a cold relationship with union chief DeMaurice Smith—and he’s feeling the cold shoulder from more and more owners that he doesn’t have the chips to call in to make tough deals right now. And certainly not something as important to an increasing group of players and owners as the anthem issue.
On Sunday, one prominent club official said he’s reached out to owners and some executives in the league in the past few days, just to ask how they think this story—the anthem, and Goodell’s contract—is going to play out. He said he hasn’t gotten one definitive answer. Just guesses. And he said the other interesting thing is there’s no logical candidate who could build a consensus to be the next commissioner if Goodell is ousted. It’s a confusing time, in part because it’s unclear whether Goodell and his administration are going to be able to do enough to make the players actually trust the league.