Roger Goodell vs. Jerry Jones is latest sign of NFL's political problems

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

The NFL’s most powerful team owner is at odds with its commissioner.

Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, is seeking to block his fellow owners from approving a contract extension for Commissioner Roger Goodell — an extension Jones himself already voted to approve earlier this year.

ESPN calls the situation, “an unprecedented, all-out civil war.”

Just as the term ‘civil war’ signals, this is an internal conflict, one that shouldn’t, in theory, mean much to football fans. But this football season, in which almost all the headlines out of the NFL are negative and political, the conflict between Jones and Goodell amounts to yet another public ding to the “shield.”

The NFL is having its season undermined by politics, and the problem doesn’t look likely to go away in time for Super Bowl LII in February.

Television ratings are down about 7% compared to the same point last season, and nearly 20% compared to 2015, and many blame the distraction of player political protests. The reality is that there are a number of headwinds against the NFL converging at once: cord-cutting; more alternate viewing options than ever before from the likes of Netflix, Amazon, and HBO; concerns over head injuries; less exciting games overall; and possible football fatigue. But the political protests certainly aren’t helping, nor is President Trump’s public attack on the NFL. Advertisers are “nervous” as they look on. The number of Americans who identify as NFL fans has gone down in the past five years, Gallup says, while the number has gone up for the NBA and NHL.

And now the league has infighting, and it’s playing out publicly.

You might think that a contract dispute between the commissioner and one owner isn’t political. But the basis for Jones’s animus toward Goodell is reportedly twofold: the six-game suspension of Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott for a domestic abuse accusation from 2016, and his handling of the political demonstrations that Colin Kaepernick began last season.

In a related story, Jones is a Papa John’s franchisee, and Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter, earlier this month, blamed the NFL’s declining ratings for his company’s flat sales. Schnatter said the player protests “should have been nipped in the bud” by the NFL last season when they first began. That matches up with an ESPN report from October that Jones was “angry with 49ers owner Jed York” and “felt that if he had forced quarterback Kaepernick to stand a year ago, the national anthem crisis could have been averted.” As a result, some believe Jones was behind Schnatter’s comments.

All of this is part and parcel of the same overall truth: the NFL cannot escape politics this season. In fact, some fans might reasonably wonder if that trend will ever end, given the current political climate in America.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (L) and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones (Getty)

How much money is Roger Goodell paid?

Goodell earned $212.5 million in his first decade as commissioner, an average of $21.3 million per year. He became commissioner in 2006, but in 2015 the NFL voluntarily gave up its status as a tax-exempt 501(c)(6) trade organization, which meant it no longer has to publicly disclose Goodell’s salary. That means we don’t know how much Goodell made starting in 2016.

Goodell’s pay structure is dependent on various bonuses each year, and in 2015 he actually took a small pay cut: Goodell made $34 million in 2014 and $32 million in 2015. His current contract expires in 2019.

For comparison, former MLB commissioner Bud Selig reportedly made $22 million in his final season, and NBA commissioner David Stern earned an annual salary of $20 million at the end of his tenure. (It is unknown how much new MLB commissioner Rob Manfred or new NBA commissioner Adam Silver are paid.) NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman reportedly makes just about $10 million per year. It is worth noting, at a time when the internet loves to gawk at Goodell’s salary, that only six years ago, media outlets were doing the same about Selig’s. Goodell now makes the most of the commissioners because his league makes the most in revenue.

The NFL compensation committee is looking to extend Goodell through 2024. He reportedly countered their last offer with a demand of $49.5 million and the lifetime use of a private jet. That is a bigger salary than what Disney CEO Bob Iger or Nike CEO Mark Parker get, to name just two companies close to the NFL.

While a number like $50 million makes for great inflammatory headlines that lead fans to roll their eyes, it’s important to remember that Goodell works for the owners, and despite various scandals over the last few seasons, Goodell has tripled the league’s annual revenue during his tenure, to a projected $14 billion this year. (Declining ratings this season won’t mean lower revenue for the league, since those contracts are already locked up; but it will mean losses for television networks.) Goodell’s job is to serve as the public-facing punching bag for the league, and to make the league money, and he has done both. The NFL owners (at least two thirds of them, judging by the recent vote to extend him) believe he has done a great job.

The compensation committee has six members: Arthur Blank (owner of the Falcons), Clark Hunt (Chiefs), Bob Kraft (Patriots), John Mara (Giants), Bob McNair (Texans) and Art Rooney (Steelers). But ESPN has reported that Jones has become “an informal seventh member of the committee.”

Jones has demanded a pay cut for Goodell and a change to the way he is paid, making Goodell’s contract more dependent on performance incentives. Jones hired attorney David Boies (the “superlawyer” who has recently represented Theranos, DraftKings, and Harvey Weinstein) and threatened to sue the NFL if it extends Goodell. The latest development: NFL owners, in response, may discipline Jones for “conduct detrimental” to the league.

The two-year dispute between Goodell and Patriots owner Bob Kraft over “Deflategate” may look similar to this situation, but according to ESPN, Jones said to Goodell in August, “If you think Bob Kraft came after you hard, Bob Kraft is a pu–y compared to what I’m going to do.”

How will Goodell vs. Jones end?

Unless you are a Cowboys fan, there is no one to root for in this unsightly squabble.

If Jones’s primary motive against Goodell is the Elliott suspension, it is a stark sign that he cares more about the success of his team on the field than the league’s overall reputation regarding player discipline. The NFL and Goodell were raked over the coals for their mishandling of the Ray Rice domestic abuse in 2014, and since then the league has established a six-game suspension policy for domestic violence, though it has not always kept to its own policy. If it were someone else’s player being suspended, would Jones still be on the attack? Furthermore, Jones already voted earlier this year to extend Goodell’s contract; now he wants to change his mind simply because his team was hurt by a Goodell decision.

On the other hand, many see hypocrisy in the suspension of Elliott. He was accused, but never charged; Jones called the suspension “an overcorrection,” implying Goodell is seeking to fix the Rice mistake. (And according to past reporting by ESPN, that is exactly why Goodell was so harsh on the Patriots in the “Deflategate” matter; he was seeking to fix the leniency of “Spygate.”)

In a business sense, it’s also fair for Jones to ask why the owners need to decide on extending Goodell nearly two years before his contract is up. Jones would like to hold off, which some might say is perfectly reasonable. Even the players are offended by Goodell wanting $50 million: Raiders linebacker NaVorro Bowman calls it a “slap in the face.”

How will this all end? No one knows for sure, but it’s not likely Jones or Goodell is going anywhere. Whatever discipline NFL owners want to bring on Jones isn’t going to include stripping him of his team, and Jones’s rage isn’t likely to stop Goodell from getting a new contract. Come 2020, Roger Goodell will likely still be  the NFL commissioner, and Jerry Jones the Dallas Cowboys owner.

The relationship between the Cowboys and the NFL office may be permanently damaged, but people said that about the Patriots and the NFL after Deflategate, and those parties have moved on.

The larger truth is that the NFL has a political problem, largely driven by outside factors. This season, sports fans and sports media are talking about Trump’s attacks on the NFL, and about player protests, and about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), and about Elliott and domestic violence, and now about Jones and Goodell.

The one thing they aren’t really talking about is football, as an anonymous NFL owner complained to ESPN. “It’s just killing the game,” the owner said.

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite. Sportsbook is our sports business video and podcast series.

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