Reimer: Jerry Jones shows NFL owners, not Roger Goodell, are to blame for league's PR woes

Alex Reimer
November 17, 2017 - 3:03 pm

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

One of Jerry Jones’ central complaints against commissioner Roger Goodell is the NFL’s proclivity to move from controversy to controversy. The league is seemingly always caught up in a public relations disaster, whether it’s over pertinent matters like domestic violence or trivial nonsense such as whether less than two dozen players kneel for the national anthem. 

Goodell has whiffed on nearly every single player discipline issue, including Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension for domestic abuse, which was enacted against the recommendation of the only league investigator who interviewed his accuser. But Goodell would not have been able to screw up so royally over the last decade without lots of help from his billionaire overlords. NFL owners lament that the public’s attention often gets taken away from football. But as the fiasco over Goodell’s contract extension shows, they have nobody but themselves to blame.

It’s unlikely Jones’ crusade will result in Goodell’s ousting, or even substantial changes to his contract. The Cowboys’ owner has threatened to sue the league for weeks, citing the compensation committee’s surreptitious handling of Goodell’s extension. But yet, Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who heads the committee, is moving forward with the deal. The NFL says it expects Goodell’s extension to be finalized soon

Jones prides himself on serving as the league’s shadow commissioner. Dating back 20 years, he’s gone against the NFL and gotten his way –– generating billions of dollars in the process. In the 1990s, Jones brought Rupert Murdoch’s Fox into the mix for the league’s TV rights. Despite opposition from the TV committee, the league signed new contracts with CBS (its previous rights holder) and Fox worth $1 billion. Jones continued his maverick ways in 1995, when he dismissed the NFL’s centralized sponsor agreements and signed separate deals for the Cowboys with Pepsi, American Express and Nike. The league sued Jones, and he countersued, but in the end, he wound up setting a standard for merchandising deals. 

Recently, Jones orchestrated the Rams’ relocation to Los Angeles, which he ironically now counts as a strike against Goodell

A new ESPN the Magazine feature story details the breadth of Jones’ anti-Goodell crusade. The timeline starts in August, when Goodell suspended Elliott for six games, despite reportedly promising Jones otherwise. In a phone call, Jones threatened to go after Goodell with so much vengeance, it would make Robert Kraft look like a "p****" for the way he handled Deflategate. 

Jones makes several salient points in favor of halting Goodell’s extension. The commissioner has made every issue worse, through either heavy-handed player discipline or unfathomable aloofness–– and sometimes a combination of both. In turn, Goodell has centralized the league’s power structure, hiring a stable of highly paid executives who report solely to him. Kraft reportedly agrees with Jones on this point, calling the league’s bureaucracy “bloated.” 

It’s apparent some owners feel squeezed out. Texans owner Bob McNair alluded to this last month, when he said his regrettable comment about “inmates running the prison” was in reference to the league office, and not the players who protest the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Still, almost every player on the Texans knelt during the anthem that week.

McNair’s unfortunate analogy highlights why it’s difficult to take Jones’ side in this ultimate battle of evil, even if he does make a lot of sense. The owners are just as culpable as Goodell for the league’s image woes. 

The NFL’s obfuscation of the truth on head trauma predates Goodell’s time in office. The league’s shoddy concussion research, which has been compared to the tobacco industry, dates back to 1996. In fact, it was one of Goodell’s lieutenants, executive vice president Jeff Miller, who admitted the link between football and head trauma in front of Congress. 

In the ESPN piece, Jones is quoted as dismissing the concussion issue as a “pimple on a baby’s ass.” 

Goodell deserves plenty of blame for failing to devise a coherent strategy to combat domestic violence. But remember, the owners have acted callously, too. It was the Ravens, not the NFL, who trotted Ray Rice’s now-wife, Janay, behind a podium three years ago to apologize for the role she played in her elevator beating. Giants owner John Mara kept disgraced kicker Josh Brown on his roster, even though he knew about a domestic violence incident involving him and his wife at the previous year’s Pro Bowl. 

Perhaps most egregiously, Jones signed Greg Hardy, who threw his ex-girlfriend onto a couch littered with rifles and threatened to kill her.

All the while, NFL owners have done little but publicly champion Goodell’s handling of domestic violence. At the height of the Rice case, Kraft said on CBS Goodell had been “excellent” on the matter. Less than one year later, Kraft bemoaned himself for having faith in the league to treat Tom Brady fairly. He should have seen it coming.

The same logic applies to Jones, who championed Goodell’s ludicrous actions during Deflategate. "(Goodell's) got obviously a very tough job," Jones said in 2015, per ESPN. "Now I see some people doing that, that's that old violin that's not feeling too sorry for him because that's why you pay the big bucks is to deal with the big problems. But he's doing an outstanding job.”

NFL owners have enabled Goodell. Now some of them, led by Jones, want Goodell out, because he’s grown into a monster they can’t control. In the process, they’ve created the latest drama that swallows attention. 

Jones’ efforts have been rebuffed at every turn. The NFL denied his request for an emergency meeting and Blank removed him as an ad-hoc member of the compensation committee. At this point, he’s fighting for the sake of spite. 

There are plenty of reasons to oppose Goodell, especially given his absurd request to earn almost $50 million per year and use a private jet for life. But it didn’t have to become this circus. 

Except, that’s where Jones, and many of these owners, seem to thrive. Why else would the network cameras pan up to the owners’ box during every telecast, with announcers spending a few seconds worshipping every elderly billionaire sitting up there?

Jones doesn’t care that the attention isn’t on the players. He wants a commissioner he can intimidate. Goodell hasn’t done a good job, but the owners’ next puppet likely wouldn’t be any better. 

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