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Business of Football: Mixed Feelings on St. Louis Settlement; Don't Compare Antonio Brown to Aaron Rodgers

The NFL paid one of its former markets a real amount, but cut off a major threat. Plus, recent COVID-19 controversies and college football is big business too.

Since I was last in this space, a couple of important business of sports items have landed, including a former NFL city’s getting paid to go away, more unwanted exposure for the NFL’s COVID-19 protocols and the business of college football’s looking more like the business of pro football. Let’s examine.

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St. Louis suing no more

Scheduled to go to trial next month, the four-year litigation brought by the city of St. Louis against the NFL (which I examined in detail here) has ended.

I have mixed feelings about this settlement. The number, $790 million, is, by any measure, a significant one, even to billionaires like Rams owner Stan Kroenke. Although a reported $270 million of it is going to the plaintiffs’ lawyers—there will be (high-paid) lawyers—the fact that Kroenke and the NFL are paying more than $500 million to a city they left behind is an acknowledgment that they knew that had real risk from this lawsuit. The NFL recognized their vulnerability in a jury trial in St. Louis, where the league would clearly be seen as the embodiment of corporate evil. Perhaps the NFL sensed that a jury would perceive that they played fast and loose with their own relocation guidelines in their zeal to move to Los Angeles. So $790 million, or even $520 million once the lawyers are all paid, is a real and meaningful number.

However, even at $790 million, this settlement is a win for the league and Kroenke. There will be 1) no discovery (of potentially confidential and sensitive information), 2) no jury trial in January (while the Rams are in the playoffs), 3) no potential damage award in the billions, and—sorry, St. Louis—4) no expansion franchise awarded. As with the NFL concussion litigation settlement a few years ago, the NFL removed a litigious threat that could have cost owners several billion dollars, not to mention a years-long distraction from the product. They moved past the concussion litigation and ancillary stories of former players’ suffering from dementia and CTE. And now they move past the St. Louis litigation and ancillary stories of Kroenke and the owners’ wanting to abandon St. Louis for L.A. all along.

With that threat removed, the league’s unprecedented popularity and prosperity continues, buoyed by news that the Thanksgiving game between the Cowboys and Raiders—penalty-filled as it was—drew a striking 38.5 million viewers, making it the most-watched nonplayoff game in more than 30 years. The power of the NFL is amazing, and the threat from the St. Louis litigation, however real it was, has been removed.

Antonio no-no

The name Antonio Brown has appeared in this space many times over the years for many transgressions, allegations and run-ins with team management. For business of football purposes, though, Brown was the first nonquarterback in NFL history who triggered a dead-money cap charge of more than $20 million. In 2019 the Steelers decided that they would take an unprecedented cap hit of $21 million—and a couple of mid-round draft picks to the Raiders—rather than keep the talented Brown on their team. Of course, he then lasted only a couple of months before the Raiders had enough of him as well.

My first thought with the revelation that Brown used a fake vaccination card was “Hell hath no fury like an unpaid chef.” Brown has a well-known history of reportedly not paying agents, lawyers, trainers, movers, artists and, as we now see, chefs. He owed the chef $10,000; he will now lose close to $200,000 in forfeited salary during his three-game suspension. One moral of this story: Pay your bills.

The fact that NFL and NFLPA (representing Brown) agreed on this suspension makes me believe the league threatened a longer one, perhaps through the end of the season or more. The resolution, I believe, was crafted in a negotiation where Brown agreed to a three-game suspension in exchange for not going through an appeal.

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Many have asked whether I would now cut Brown. Well, I would have never signed Brown. I realize that may run counter to my frequent saying (greater talent = greater tolerance), but we have seen enough of him to know that he is not going to change, even with the influence and friendship of Tom Brady. Brown is like that boyfriend or girlfriend where the partner keeps thinking he or she will change and, of course, never does. As for his employer, the Buccaneers, there is the Brady factor, which means that they will likely not go the way of the Steelers, Raiders and Patriots, teams that released Brown in a six-month period in 2019.

As to the thousands that ask, some quite forcefully, why a three-game suspension here and only a nominal fine for Aaron Rodgers, um, do I really have to explain this? Rodgers was misleading—some would say he lied—to the media; Brown lied to his team and to the league. Rodgers’s teammates, coaches, staff and front office—not to mention the NFL—all knew his vaccination status. Brown perpetrated a fraud upon his teammates, the Buccaneers and the NFL. And, as I am told by lawyers in that space, may have committed a felony. I realize a lot of people don’t like Aaron, but please.

Big picture here: Although this will not dampen any of the incredible popularity and prosperity of the league—I am not sure there is anything that could—the Brown saga (as well as the Rodgers saga) is not a good look for the NFL (or the Bucs). Were it not for this unpaid chef, we would have never found out about this fake vaccination card. Given that, how many other fake cards are out there?

College football’s big business

Finally, a word about Lincoln Riley’s leaving Oklahoma and Brian Kelly’s leaving Notre Dame. Two successful college coaches of traditional powerhouse football programs have taken the money and run to USC and LSU, respectively, and the megacontracts that most NFL coaches could never receive.

What struck me about these moves is the speed and finality of it all, very much like Black Monday in the NFL. One day these coaches are coaching their last games of the season; the next day they and their staffs are being fired (in the NFL) or, in these college cases, stealing off to their new employer under cover of darkness (Riley) or through a text (Kelly).

The business of college football is big business, and, like the big business of the NFL, can be dirty. The clean and shiny product on Saturdays comes with a lot of messy sausage-making behind the scenes. There are broken promises—to the athletes, parents, boosters, fans, etc.—and a constant arms race to get the best players, best facilities and, as here, best coaches. All for a business that—despite the advent of off-field name, image and likeness—money, does not pay its labor force.

The business of sports always wins.

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