By Ken Belson
New York Times News Service
The NFL, the $14 billion-a-year sports juggernaut that dominates TV ratings as well as the national conversation most Sundays, has ascended to its position of supremacy in recent years with an ownership group that often works in lockstep. The men who control the league’s 32 teams might disagree sometimes, but rarely do they publicly reveal any discord.
Now the league, already wobbling under the strain of presidential and public aggravation over players kneeling during the national anthem, is coping with what amounts to an all-out war between one of its most powerful owners and the commissioner, Roger Goodell, who has been rewarded for the league’s success with annual compensation salary that has topped $40 million.
Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, has escalated a feud with Goodell, threatening to sue the league and some fellow team owners over negotiations to extend Goodell’s contract, according to three people with direct knowledge of the situation.
Jones told the six owners on the league’s compensation committee last week that he had hired David Boies, the high-profile lawyer under fire in the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment case, according to the sources, who declined to be speak publicly about internal league matters.
Through a team spokesman, Jones declined to comment. An NFL spokesman declined to comment, and a spokesman for Boies’ law firm referred all questions to the Cowboys.
The dispute between Jones and Goodell stems from Jones’ anger over the commissioner’s suspending of Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys’ star running back, who was accused of domestic violence by his former girlfriend. Goodell gave Elliott a six-game suspension, though no charges were filed in the case.
The suspension, announced in August, has since undergone a dizzying array of rulings and court appeals that has, for now, kept Elliott on the field. Jones has called the suspension an “overcorrection,” a gibe at Goodell, who has been criticized in recent years for his handling of player discipline.
Jones appears intent on holding up Goodell’s contract extension and potentially pushing him out. He is in the minority among owners. While some are unhappy with how the commissioner has handled issues related to player conduct and the national anthem controversy, few of them are prepared to replace Goodell, who has been commissioner for more than a decade and has worked at the league since the early 1980s.
The intraleague battle is unusual for an organization that prides itself on order and unanimity and oversees the most popular sport in the country. But it is in the middle of one of its most tumultuous seasons over issues like players kneeling during the national anthem to protest social injustice, a wave of injuries to star players, and a television ratings dip that has fed debate over whether the game is declining.
Jones said in a conference call last Thursday with the six owners — those of the Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Falcons, New York Giants, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Texans — that legal papers were drawn up and would be served this Friday if the committee did not scrap or delay its current plans to extend Goodell’s contract.
As of Wednesday, the owners had not been sued.
Jones has been a nonvoting member of a committee of owners that is considering Goodell’s contract, which expires at the end of the 2018 season. Jones has fought to have a say.
After Jones spoke to the committee by conference call last week, the six owners revoked Jones’ status as an ad hoc member of the compensation committee, which decides on pay packages for the top league officials.
Over the next several days, the six owners then have been speaking to the other 25 owners who are not on the committee to notify them of what Jones had said.
At a meeting in May, all 32 owners — including Jones — voted to extend Goodell’s contract and authorized the compensation committee to work out the details. After Elliott was suspended, Jones began lobbying the committee to undermine the deal.
Boies is a prominent lawyer who has argued before the Supreme Court and represented corporations and executives in high-profile cases.
He has also worked for the NFL, representing the league in federal court in 2011 after the players association decertified as a union. Boies has also worked with several owners, some of whom now feel blindsided that he agreed to help Jones potentially sue the league.
Jones has publicly questioned Elliott’s suspension as well as the commissioner’s role in handing down player penalties.
“Zeke is a victim of an overcorrection,” Jones said in a radio interview in October, a day after Elliott lost his bid for a preliminary injunction that would have stayed the six-game ban for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
Jones has also been the most vocal owner to urge players to stand for the national anthem. He and other owners are upset that Goodell has not done more to stop players from kneeling or sitting during the anthem.