Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has picked a very public fight with the NFL over the pending extension of Commissioner Roger Goodell’s contract.
He’s questioned Goodell’s leadership and threatened to sue the league if Goodell gets a new deal. A group of owners warned him this week to knock it off. In an extraordinary letter, they accused him of “damaging the league” and behaving in a way “detrimental to the league’s best interests.”
That language is almost identical to a provision of the NFL bylaws that define when the league can take away an owner’s team.
But Jodi Balsam, a former NFL lawyer who was responsible for the league constitution and bylaws from 1994 to 2007, says it’s unlikely the other owners would level such severe punishment on Jones.
The reason, she says, is that owners fear their own turn in the barrel.
“Jones has a lot of friends in the league, and it’s unlikely they would agree to punish one of their own because what comes around goes around,” Balsam, now an associate professor at Brooklyn Law School, tells CNNMoney.
The NFL executive committee, made up of the owners of all 32 teams, can oust a fellow owner. But it takes a three-quarters vote. And Jones is powerful, despite his occasional flair for public controversy.
Besides winning three Super Bowls and running the most valuable team in America’s most profitable sport, he helped Las Vegas and Los Angeles land NFL teams. And he was instrumental to securing the league’s lucrative TV rights deal.
Jones is upset that his star running back, Ezekiel Elliott, was suspended six games earlier this season for domestic violence allegations. He also has taken a much harsher stance than Goodell on players who kneel during the National Anthem to protest racial injustice. At one point Jones said he wanted to bench players for kneeling.
To block Goodell’s path to a new contract, Jones has argued that every owner should get to review the terms of any deal. But in May, all 32 owners voted to give that power to a committee of six owners. (Jones was an honorary, non-voting member until he threatened to sue and was removed.)
In response to the threat of a lawsuit, the lawyer representing that committee sent a letter to Jones’ lawyer warning Jones to stop sabotaging the negotiations.
Balsam says an NFL owner has never been removed for misbehavior.
In the NBA, Clippers owner Donald Sterling was pushed out of the league in 2014, but that was for racist comments that turned him into a national outcast. Sterling was banned from his own team and forced to sell.
Balsam says when NFL owners have lost teams, it’s usually been for financial reasons.
“The league usually works these things out behind the scenes,” she said. “But owners have quietly departed as a result of persuasive efforts by fellow owners and the league office when they’re incapable of running the team.”
What’s more likely is that Jones might be fined, Balsam says.
The bylaws allow either the executive committee or the commissioner to fine an owner up to $500,000 for each violation.
Balsam says it’s highly unusual for the NFL to fine owners for their comments and actions. It’s different from other leagues in that way. For example, the NBA has fined Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban several times for his behavior.
But, while it might be unusual to incur a fine, Jones is more than just badmouthing Goodell. He’s threatening to sue the league — his fellow owners.
If he is punished, Balsam says it would be more effective for the committee to do it because Goodell has a personal tie to the matter. His job is at stake.
Goodell’s contract still has more than a year and a half to run. But the calendar could be pressuring the league to act now to renew his deal.
Not only are major network TV deals ending in 2021 and 2022, but the league’s collective bargaining agreement with players ends after the 2020 season. If the NFL brought in a new commissioner, that person would only have a year or so to get up to speed.
Balsam says she doesn’t understand Jones’ endgame. She says the best time to replace a commissioner is after he or she negotiates a successful CBA — not right before. And Goodell is a very skilled negotiator, she says: The past two deals he did were favorable for owners.
Goodell worked in the league for 24 years before being named commissioner. In that time he handled football and business operations and played a key role in the league’s expansion.
When he took over as commissioner he helped broker a 10-year CBA and nine-year deals with CBS, NBC and Fox.
He also helped grow the league’s revenue to over $12 billion in 2014 and has set a goal of $25 billion by 2027.
The NFL, Jones’ attorney and the Dallas Cowboys did not respond to requests for comment.