Jerry Jones Threatens to Sue NFL Owners Over Roger Goodell Contract: How We Got Here

Dallas Cowboys owner’s hand hovers over the nuclear button as league sources explain why the powerful Jones is ‘crossing the Rubicon’ with lawsuit warning
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Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ final day as an ad hoc, non-voting member of the NFL’s compensation committee was an eventful one.

That was last Thursday, and it was then that Jones advised the six voting members—Atlanta owner Arthur Blank, Kansas City’s Clark Hunt, New England’s Robert Kraft, Houston’s Bob McNair, the Giants’ John Mara, Pittsburgh’s Art Rooney—that he had retained powerful attorney David Boies and had papers drawn up. And if they wouldn’t listen to him on commissioner Roger Goodell’s extension, he’d sue them.

Jones was vague about what the basis of his suit would be, but clear that he planned to challenged the committee’s authority. And so it was that the NFL’s most powerful owner declared war on the league’s chief executive, via legal action against the committee empowered to extend Goodell’s reign.

“When it came to league (office) staff, or Roger’s compensation, he had some other owners saying that he was right,” said one source connected to the committee and the commissioner. “Or when he said ‘the deal shouldn’t be structured that way’ or that the league had gone beyond its mandate as a sports league on off-field issues, there were people agreeing. But when he sues the owners, that’s crossing the Rubicon.”

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The rest of the owners were informed on Friday and Saturday of Jones’ intent to sue, and Jones was informed by the committee that he’d no longer have any role in Goodell’s contract negotiation.

“He’s threatened to sue us before, so it’s not like we haven’t been down this road,” said an owner, speaking on the condition of anonymity, on Wednesday night. “I can think of two other occasions off the top of my head.”

This owner said there was the case in the ’90s over licensing and another, “more recently,” and he declined to elaborate. Still, this wasn’t expected. “It was a surprise,” said the owner.

In this week’s Game Plan, we’re going to go deep into the Saints’ rookies, and how they could affect Sean Payton’s future in New Orleans; examine Ben McAdoo’s tenuous hold on the Giants; look at Jimmy Garoppolo’s arrival in San Francisco; explore the overlooked renovation the Rams have completed; check on Josh Gordon, and so much more. But we’ll start with the bomb that dropped Wednesday afternoon.

How did we get here? Back in May, Jones was one of the owners leading the charge in empowering the compensation committee to go forward with a new deal for Goodell, whose current deal expires in 2019. And Jones was among those voting through the resolution, by a 32-0 count, to grant the committee full authority to do a deal.

That in effect was Goodell’s re-election. At the point, Jones was asked to join the process in the aforementioned ad hoc role. Typically the rest is logistical, with the committee charged with negotiating the terms and structure of the contract.

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What’s followed has been far from normal. Two sources informed of the negotiation indicated that Jones was supportive in moving the deal forward, but pointed to the Aug. 11 suspension of Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott as the turning point. After that, the sources said, Jones began raising concerns with the power of the league office, the commissioner’s compensation, and staffing within 345 Park.

On Oct. 18, on the second day of the league’s fall meeting, Falcons owner Blank spoke for roughly 10 minutes during a special privileged session to update the owners on the talks with Goodell. Then, Jones seized the floor and spoke for 10 minutes, and was impassioned on the subject.

“But you have to understand, he’s a grandstander, he can be over-the-top passionate,” said another ownership source. “So it can be hard to differentiate.”

A week later, on Oct. 26, Jones convened a conference call of 17 owners, none of whom were on the compensation committee, to discuss Goodell’s contract situation and options if a deal they didn’t like were pushed through. And it was a week after that, on Nov. 2, that Jones dropped his threat of the lawsuit to the six owners on the committee.

To be sure, there has been growing sentiment that Jones has become too powerful over the past few years, and that his forcefulness in pushing through franchise relocations to Los Angeles and Las Vegas served as a breaking point. Five members of the compensation committee (Hunt, Kraft, Mara, McNair and Rooney) also served on the league’s six-man Los Angeles committee.

Conversely, there’s a feeling among some that Jones’ anger is rooted in not getting his way—after winning on L.A. and Vegas—on the issues of players standing for the anthem and the Elliott situation. Some of the challenges the league faces business-wise (both with the in-stadium and broadcast product) have only exacerbated that.

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A source familiar with Jones’ thinking countered by insisting Jones’ resistance is focused on the compensation and structure of Goodell’s contract, and has nothing to do with Elliott. The source added that Jones viewed his role as an ad hoc member of the committee to be the voice of the 26 other owners, and that, based on the Oct. 26 call, he’s confident he has support and is no lone wolf hijacking the process.

Both Blank and Jones declined to comment, when we reached out to them. As for Goodell, the latest word was estate issues were being worked through in his contract negotiations, and Blank said publicly at the fall meeting that he and the committee—again, fully authorized now to do a deal—were moving forward.

Now? It seems like everyone’s waiting for Jones’ next move. And with the promise out there that the lawsuit is coming at week’s end, it would seem that his finger is hovering over the nuclear button.

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