Word comes down today that the NFL is seeking to fine Jerry Jones millions of dollars for “conduct detrimental to the league.” Obviously, Jerry Jones can find a million dollars underneath the cushions in his sofa, so this may be a bigger deal to me than it is to him, but one can’t help but wonder if this is Roger Goodell’s way of saying there’s a price to be paid for crossing him.
Late last year, Jones had the temerity to try to put a break on contract negotiations between Goodell and the owners. The lack of conflict in the negotiations was somewhat surprising, given the league’s – and Goodell’s struggles with high-profile issues such as domestic abuse, player safety, player protests, replay, and TV ratings. Jones seemed more concerned with how the league handled the suspension of his best player, RB Ezekiel Elliott, but there were valid reasons for wanting to put the breaks on things.
Just to be clear, I could probably spend a week talking to Jerry Jones and not find anything we agree on. He’s a blowhard who should put his ego aside and find someone qualified to run his football team, and his response to the player protests last year was disrespectful to his players. But Jones and the other owners are Goodell’s bosses, so he was seemingly within his rights to question whether extending Goodell’s contract – worth two hundred million dollars over five years – was in the best interests of the league.
Goodell got his extension, so that could have put this matter to bed, but he has decided to fine Jones for the legal costs of threatening to sue over the extension and litigating Elliot’s suspension. Technically, there are league rules that allow him to do this, but, as we have seen with player suspensions, Goodell has leeway in how he enforces rules. He could have let it go, which would have been the magnanimous thing to do. It probably would have also been the sensible thing to do, because we were in the middle of talking about mock drafts and where Kirk Cousins is going, which are subjects that the NFL wants us to talk about in February and March. Now we are talking about this fine, which will dredge up the whole Elliott mess and the fact that Goodell makes more money than any of the players. Those are not headlines that the NFL wants.
More than anything, though, this is a petty attempt by Goodell to send a message. Jones has spent most of the last year in public conflict with the commissioner, and Jerry Jones doesn’t do anything in a subtle way. It’s only natural for Goodell to want to stick it to Jones in return, both as payback and to deter other owners from pushing back against Goodell’s edicts in the future. However, this is not an example of good leadership. The owners have granted Goodell nearly unchecked power and a boatload of money. By any reasonable standard, he won both of his standoffs with Jones last year. If he had let it go there, the takeaway from the Elliott lawsuit was that the suspension stood, reinforcing his power in the area of player suspensions. The further takeaway from the suspension and the contract negotiations was that Jones is a crybaby who takes his ball and goes home when things don’t go his way.
Those are outcomes that work for Goodell, that enhance his standing within the league and with the general public. Needless to say, any outcome that makes Jerry Jones look bad is good for Goodell, too. But by trying to exact further retribution, Goodell not only brings all of that ugliness back to the front pages, he risks making Jones a sympathetic figure, which isn’t an easy trick to pull off. There’s an obvious hidden message behind this fine: you dared to mess with me; there will be consequences. That’s not how leaders act, it’s how tyrants rule. Goodell has shown us on many occasions in the past that when he has unchecked power he makes a mess. The other owners — who no doubt also want to see Jones brought down a notch — should be wary about supporting Goodell in this.