A year of protests, backlash a presidential interference has exposed fault lines between the league’s players and its management — and even between the team owners themselves.
By Stewart love.
hey could have been any two billionaire schmucks taking an evening stroll through Manhattan. Robert Kraft and Arthur Blank, the owners of the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons, respectively, had met up at the Plaza Hotel, where Kraft keeps an apartment. It was a warm night in August, and they decided to forgo the usual limo and head to dinner on foot.
Passers-by who recognized them on the street expressed mild surprise that Kraft and Blank, the rival owners from last February’s Super Bowl, would be seen together. Kraft and Blank shared a few laughs over this. They are in fact close friends of similar age (Blank is 75, Kraft 76), background (observant Jews from the Northeast, Blank from Queens and Kraft from Brookline, Mass.), means (multiple billions) and tastes (bespoke suits, younger women). But few bonds run deeper than shared association in this most exclusive club of American fat cats, the 32 magnates who own N.F.L. franchises.
Blank needed to unburden himself of a minor beef with Kraft. It involved the aforementioned Super Bowl LI. After the Falcons blew a late 28-3 lead over the Patriots and lost in overtime, and “28-3” entered the lexicon of football taunts, Kraft ordered exactly 283 diamonds embedded into each of the 10-karat white gold Super Bowl rings he commissioned for the Patriots. Blank, who bought the Falcons in 2002, mostly took the loss and the attendant trolling in stride. But the ring stunt bothered him. He found it unnecessary and tacky. “I said to Robert, ‘You didn’t have to do the 28-3 in the ring,’” he told me recently. “It kind of pissed me off.”
But Blank and Kraft had more important matters to discuss. They had come to New York in their capacities as members of the N.F.L.’s compensation committee, the six owners charged with determining the salaries of the league’s top executives. They would be meeting for dinner in a private room at the Midtown restaurant Patroon to iron out the details of a new five-year contract extension for the N.F.L. commissioner, Roger Goodell. By the terms of the agreement that had been in the works for several months, Goodell stood to make as much as $200 million by 2024 if the league hit its financial targets.
But some other owners had begun grumbling about the deal, at first in private and then very much in public. After all, Goodell would earn this spectacular paycheck despite the fact that, of late, he always seemed to be presiding over some self-inflicted fiasco, and despite the creeping notion that the once-mighty N.F.L. had been operating in a baseline state of turmoil in recent years, if not outright decline. There had been a two-year drop in television ratings, which the league has blamed on factors like the attention-devouring 2016 presidential campaign and a proliferation of “cord-cutting” viewers disrupting the broadcast model (TV accounts for 60 percent of the N.F.L.’s total revenue). But the dip could just as easily have reflected more existential threats to the league. There was the drumbeat of ominous new research about concussions and, with it, a drop in youth participation in football; regular testimonies from former stars about the sad state of their health; and posthumous diagnoses of degenerative brain disease (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E.).
And that was before the league embarked, in 2017, on its most discordant season in years, replete with player protests, fan furor over the protests and the highly unusual circumstance of an American president using the country’s most popular and profitable sport as ammunition in the country’s culture wars. In the dozen years since Goodell became its commissioner, the juggernaut league had gone from being one of the most unifying institutions in America to the country’s most polarizing sports brand.
It was debatable how large a share of the blame Goodell personally deserved for this trajectory — and Goodell, in any case, was not inclined to accept much of it. “I think it’s a little more reflective of how somewhat divided our society is at this stage,” he told me in early January. But division was the inescapable theme that came up in the two-dozen interviews I conducted with players, owners and league officials about a season in which sponsorships were jeopardized, boycotts were threatened, blacklists against players were suspected, tickets and jerseys were burned and ratings and attendance were down. “There’s no question, this season has been probably unlike anything that I’ve been around,” said Art Rooney II, president of the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose grandfather founded the team in 1933.
The N.F.L. loves to emphasize how football brings friends, families and communities together, and to present the game as an oasis clear of the rest of life’s messiness — or “distractions,” as coaches like to call such extraneous passions as politics. “We offer fans a respite from the trials and missteps of everyday life,” Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, says. That promise would evaporate abruptly in 2017, when the most potent oligarchy in American sports would have its power structure shaken, and arrive at the end of the season wondering: Was 2017 an anomaly or the future?
I went to see Roger Goodell at the N.F.L.’s headquarters at 345 Park Avenue, the morning after a sluggish docket of first-round playoff games in early January. The commissioner was sitting in his sixth-floor office, sipping water and battling a cold. Goodell, who is 58, wore a beige V-neck sweater and looked somewhat worn down but freshly worked-out; he had just come from a Pilates class at a studio not far from the office. It had been a “challenging” season, Goodell allowed — there are never “problems,” only “challenges” for this commissioner — but every season has its issues. “Never has there been a period in our history where everything’s been great,” he said. “We’ve always had our challenges.”
Goodell, the son of the former Republican senator from New York Charles Goodell, is a gifted political animal. He can come off as stiff and cautious in speeches and on TV — and can in fact be stiff and cautious in person too — but he was also clearly bred for public life, and adept at turning it on as necessary. He is a prodigious slapper of backs, squeezer of shoulders and knower of names. He laughs easily — maybe for real, or maybe not. He has also mastered the paramount political skill of prioritizing constituencies, none more so than the 32 N.F.L. team owners who employ him, the “membership,” as they are known to one another. “You have to be able to deal with and get along with 32 different personalities,” John Mara, the president and an owner of the New York Giants, told me. “We range from people like me who were born in a family business, and people who are self-made billionaires who think they know everything about everything.”
Then there was that other billionaire — the one in the White House. From early in his presidential campaign, Donald Trump held up the N.F.L. as a symbol of the sissified and hypersensitive culture he was running against: “You used to see these tackles, and it was incredible to watch, right?” Trump said at a campaign rally in Nevada in early 2016. “But football has become soft like our country has become soft.”
Culture-war critiques of the N.F.L. were previously mostly confined to the left. Liberals were far more prone to suspicion of football for its violence, militaristic sensibility and over-the-top displays of patriotism. But Trump struck a throbbing nerve on the right, making the N.F.L. an improbable symbol of permissive leadership and political correctness.
Seven months after Trump’s Nevada rally, and just in time for the general election, Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, took to kneeling during the national anthem before preseason games: a protest, he explained, against police brutality endured by African-Americans and other minorities. It was only a matter of time before Trump served up the vegan Kaepernick as red meat to his base. “The N.F.L. is way down in their ratings,” Trump taunted the league at a campaign rally in Greeley, Colo., a week before the election. He said that politics was “a much rougher game than football” and also more exciting. “We’ve taken a lot of people away from the N.F.L.,” Trump boasted. “And the other reason is Kaepernick — Kaepernick!”
Well before Kaepernick was even born, the N.F.L. had figured prominently in the future president’s personal ledger of grievance and unreturned affection. Trump had wanted into the membership for years, even though his earlier foray into football — as the owner of the short-lived United States Football League’s New Jersey Generals in the 1980s — ended disastrously, with the league’s collapse. In 1984, he finagled himself a meeting with the N.F.L. commissioner at the time, Pete Rozelle, at the Pierre Hotel in New York, in which he told Rozelle he would do whatever it took to get himself into the league, according to an account of the meeting in “Football for a Buck,” the sportswriter Jeff Pearlman’s coming book on the U.S.F.L. Rozelle was not impressed.
Rozelle was Goodell’s mentor and idol, almost from the day Goodell set foot at the league in 1982. Rozelle’s dim view of Trump — whom he saw as a clown and a con man — trickled down to his protégé, though Goodell is careful never to share his views on Trump publicly. He has met Trump at least twice over the years, once at a Yankees game about 15 years ago and then a few years later at a small dinner gathering. Goodell found Trump to be pleasant, engaging and solicitous in those limited encounters — maybe because Trump was still, at the time, angling for a place in the membership. In 2014, he tried to buy the Buffalo Bills, only to have his bid passed over. After losing out on Buffalo, Trump lashed out at his owner friends — particularly New England’s Robert Kraft — for not doing more to grease his entry into the league. He also told friends that the N.F.L., particularly Goodell, was intent on freezing him out, on account of his history with the U.S.F.L.
When I interviewed Trump — now a presidential candidate — for an article a year later, he was still nursing a grudge, and on a particular hobbyhorse about how unfairly the league had treated his “great friend” Tom Brady. The New England Patriots quarterback had recently been suspended by the league for four games over his supposed role in the football air-pressure scandal known as Deflategate. Trump knew I had recently written about the N.F.L. and Brady, and he proceeded to deride Goodell to me as a “weak guy,” “a dope” and “a stupid guy,” among other things.
Goodell comes from a notable Republican lineage — albeit of the mostly extinct Northeastern-moderate subspecies — and has donated to Republican candidates. But he is carefully diplomatic in his public politics: “It’s interesting times we live in,” was as much as he allowed himself to say in our interview. The politics of his league were another matter. When you look at the various constituencies that make up the N.F.L. “family,” it’s a wonder the center has held as long as it has. More than 83 percent of N.F.L. fans are white, according to a Reuters report citing a 2007 study, and fans are 20 percent more likely to be Republicans than Democrats. Nearly 70 percent of the players, meanwhile, are black, according to data from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. N.F.L. owners, with a few exceptions, lean Republican; several of them donated to Trump’s campaign, and some donated $1 million apiece to his inauguration committee. But unlike Trump, the N.F.L. cannot afford to play only to its base. It needs far more than just the predominately white, heavily male voters that compose Trump’s hard-core coalition. It wants everybody in the football family.
Goodell was in Colorado on the Friday night in September when Trump, at a rally in Alabama, called on N.F.L. owners to fire players who knelt during the national anthem. “Get that son of a [expletive] off the field right now,” Trump said. Joe Lockhart, the N.F.L.’s chief spokesman and former White House press secretary under President Clinton, called Goodell at 5:30 a.m. the following morning to discuss how to proceed.
Goodell’s initial reaction was a mix of anger and resignation. The league’s top executives — Goodell; Jeff Pash, the general counsel; and Tod Leiweke, the chief operating officer — divided up owners to call. The watchword was “unity”: They should present a single front insofar as that would be possible. Owners and teams were encouraged to issue statements, emphasizing their support for their players. Nearly every team did, though very few called out Trump or even mentioned the president. Shahid Khan, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ owner — a Pakistan-born Muslim and the only nonwhite owner in the N.F.L., as well as one of the donors to Trump’s inauguration — joined his team on the field before the game and locked arms in a show of solidarity. Several other owners followed his lead.
Kaepernick’s initial protests in 2016 had inspired roughly a dozen or so players to do the same or similar. But for all the media attention they received, the demonstrations had never reached a critical mass of players or prompted any great fan response. Trump’s provocation in Alabama changed that. “The week before the president made his statement, four people kneeled,” Arthur Blank told me. “The president then said his thing, and then 400 people kneeled.” And even that response, Blank went on, showed signs of dying down within a few days — only to flare up again when Vice President Mike Pence waged (or staged) his own counterprotest, leaving an Oct. 8 Indianapolis Colts game he was attending at taxpayer expense after a group of visiting San Francisco 49ers knelt during the anthem. “A dumb thing,” Blank called Pence’s action.
But Trump and Pence most certainly appealed to a vocal subset of N.F.L. fans. They booed kneeling players and called for boycotts; teams argued politics among themselves, and some former players criticized current ones. (“It’s the first time I’ve ever been ashamed to be a Patriot,” the longtime New England lineman Matt Light said after a dozen current Patriots took a knee.) “No one was expecting this to happen, and it was hard to see coming,” the Steelers’ Art Rooney told me. “I think there was no question it hurt the league.”
Certainly these episodes went well beyond “distraction,” which itself became a term of offense among protesting players. “When people are doing things for kids or natural disasters, nobody considers that a ‘distraction,’” Malcolm Jenkins, the Philadelphia Eagles defensive back, told me this week. “It’s only when you’re talking about racism or police brutality, all of a sudden those things are uncomfortable.” Russell Okung, an offensive tackle for the Los Angeles Chargers, said that the whole sequence of events — begun by Kaepernick, propelled by Trump — had turned the notion of “distraction” into something that could in fact usher in a new period of activism in sports. “Never has our generation been presented with these historic choices,” Okung told me. There could be ramifications inside what has traditionally be an iron-fisted hierarchy inside the N.F.L. That’s the nature of movements: They don’t necessarily respect boundaries.
As with so many things involving Trump, the president’s cannonball into the middle of a relatively contained pool of player protest set off waves in all directions. In the absence of any substantial backlash to the initial Kaepernick-led wave of demonstrations, the N.F.L. could at least tacitly endorse the players’ right to use their platform. But then suddenly not only the president of the United States but also a significant share of Americans were saying “Stand up and stick to sports.” It moved the whole argument onto much more historically explosive — and, in a league where the owner-player divide is also largely a white-black divide, racially charged — grounds. “You guys are cattle, and we’re the ranchers,” the former Dallas Cowboys president Tex Schramm famously told the Hall of Fame offensive lineman and players’ union leader Gene Upshaw during a collective-bargaining negotiation in 1987. The line — oft-quoted to this day — encapsulates both the authority structure of the N.F.L. and an autocratic view held by most of the “ranchers” and many of the paying customers. More recently, during a tense owners’ meeting at the height of the anthem protests in October, the Houston Texans’ owner, Bob McNair, said: “We can’t have the inmates running the prison,” according to an ESPN report. Most people construed the remark as an insult with clear racial overtones against protesting players, nearly all of whom were African-American. (McNair later apologized and claimed that the “inmates” he was referring to were not the players but executives at the league office.)
When I asked Goodell whether he or anyone on his staff had any communication with the White House, back-channel or otherwise, he smirked (I took this as a no). “Our focus is on what we do,” he said. “Our focus is on the game itself.” Nevertheless, owners and league officials close to Goodell said he was more supportive of the protesting players than they would have expected. He resisted pressure to enforce a “stand for the anthem” mandate from more conservative owners — the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones and the Washington Redskins’ Daniel Snyder among them. Goodell spent hours listening to players’ concerns and meeting with members of the N.F.L. Players Coalition, a newly formed advocacy group dedicated to the racial-justice issues that prompted the anthem protests. The league pledged to the coalition that it would donate $89 million over seven years to social-justice organizations. That was less than half what Goodell’s new salary could bring him in just five years, but the commissioner still drew considerable praise from players who were critical of him in the past. “I was in two meetings with Roger, and I felt like he was sincere in what he was trying to do,” Eric Winston, an offensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals and the president of the N.F.L. Players Association, the players’ union, told me. “In hindsight you can always do more, but I do think he has done a very admirable job.”
In conversations with owners, Goodell expressed grudging admiration for Kaepernick (at least until he sued the league in October, claiming collusion on the part of the owners to keep him from playing for another team). If nothing else, he respected Kaepernick’s willingness to stand on principle and take an unpopular position. Goodell’s father had done the same in breaking with a Republican president over Vietnam, and it had cost him his job; the previously friendly Nixon White House turned against him and helped to defeat him in his 1970 re-election campaign. Goodell keeps a copy of the Vietnam Disengagement Act, the bill his father sponsored to end the war, on the wall of his office. He fashions himself a similarly strait-laced man of principle — though principle is a tricky business for an N.F.L. commissioner with many constituencies (and principles) to consider.
If nothing else, Goodell and the players share a boss: the owners. With some exceptions, they are still, in the main, a geriatric boys’ club: a mix of old money and new, sweethearts and criminals, men of enlarged ego and prostate. They are secure in the one position in the N.F.L. that is answerable to no one. They are subject to no re-election campaigns, recall elections or term limits. “I own this football team,” the 49ers’ owner, Jed York, felt compelled to remind a group of reporters after firing his general manger and third coach in three years after the 2016-17 season. “You don’t dismiss owners.” The membership are coveters of high-profile properties who nevertheless generally avoid the spotlight. In most cases, they prefer to let their “football people” — their players and coaches — do the talking. They view themselves as higher-order sportsmen, concerned with the lofty business of legacies.
But the anthem protests dragged certain owners into a spotlight they would otherwise be reluctant to occupy. It forced them to take a public position on a matter where any position would anger a lot of people, be they ticket-holders or players. York himself would emerge as part of a newer, younger and more progressive faction of the membership — outspoken in support of N.F.L. initiatives promoting social justice and community-action causes, and one of the few owners to address reporters during the contentious October meeting in New York, when the owners gathered to discuss the kneeling protests.
“Ultimately, social justice is not a political issue,” York said, holding court in the lobby of the Conrad Hotel in Lower Manhattan. Far from distancing himself from 49ers players that protested, York embraced them. He took pride that it was his team that employed the player who started it all. (Kaepernick opted out of the final year of his contract with the 49ers last March; the team’s general manager, John Lynch, said he would have been released for reasons unrelated to the protests regardless.) “I don’t want to take a bow and say that we did something great and special,” York said. “It happened to start with us. But it started with Colin. And I give Colin so much credit, so much respect for doing something that he knew was going to create backlash.”
The Falcons’ Arthur Blank, too, was generally considered an ally of the players. A few days after Pence’s walkout in Indianapolis, I met Blank in the family office he keeps in Buckhead, the suburban Atlanta neighborhood. Blank is known for his sleekly tailored suits and the pride he takes in them. “I say to the players, ‘You put your uniform on every Sunday, the owner should, too,’” Blank said as he slurped up the last noisy drops of a massive Nutella milkshake he had brought in from a nearby Steak ‘n Shake.
Blank had issued one of the stronger statements in response to Trump, though like the other owners’, it did not mention him specifically. “Creating division or demonizing viewpoints that are different than our own accomplishes nothing positive,” Blank had said. As for the players’ protest, Blank told me when we met: “A lot of what they’re protesting in my view is very legitimate.” When Trump weighed in as he did, he said, “it became a manhood issue” for many of the teams — “or in some cases a brotherhood issue.” He wondered whether Trump’s attacks on the N.F.L. were motivated by “real issues,” or whether they were just “distracting from real issues or other issues having to do with the country.”
Blank’s relative outspokenness also reflects the demographic makeup of his customers. The Falcons’ season-ticket base is 40 percent African-American — a figure that could very well be higher than that of any professional sports team in America. Likewise, Kaepernick’s 2016 protest, and York’s vocal support for it, were bound to receive a more sympathetic hearing in liberal San Francisco than they would have in, say, Dallas, home of the Cowboys and dominion of Jerry Jones.
A devilish Arkansas wildcatter who owns the league’s most valuable team, Jones, 75, fashions himself the biggest, swingingest member of the membership. He likes to make his big opinions known about how the league should be run. For years, while generally supportive of Goodell, Jones had maintained that the league office had become bloated, its top executives overpaid. His feelings were hurt when Blank chose five owners not named Jerry Jones to serve on an expanded version of the compensation committee last year.
At the time, Jones had otherwise been feeling rather pleased about his elevated place in the football universe. In August, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, an honor Jones had coveted. He celebrated with a blowout party at Glenmoor Country Club in Canton, under a huge white tent, fit for a circus. Cowboys cheerleaders, dressed in gold, flanked the entrance to welcome the arrivals. Justin Timberlake performed and declared from the stage that “the greatest owner in the history of sports is being honored tonight.” Cocktail napkins were printed with inscrutable “Jerryisms,” memorable lines uttered by Jones over the years. (“You don’t have to spend a lot of time going over and kind of circumcising the mosquito,” he once proclaimed in an apparent critique of overthinking.)
Goodell was among the guests, and he greeted Jones with a hug. He did not happen to mention a piece of looming business the commissioner knew would put a damper on Jones’s bar mitzvah weekend. A few days later, the N.F.L. would announce it would be suspending Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys’ star running back, for the first six games of the 2017 season following accusations of assault from a former girlfriend. (Elliott was never charged.)
Jones was not happy with this verdict, to say the least. When the commissioner called with the news, Jones promised, in so many words, to make Goodell’s life a living hell. Coming from a protégé of Al Davis, the infamously oppositional and litigious Oakland Raiders owner, this was not an empty threat.
Jones never raised strong objections to the particulars of Goodell’s new contract until the Elliott decision came down, three members of the compensation committee told me. But after the decision, Jones swiftly set about trying to undermine Goodell’s deal. He got in Blank’s ear so frequently about the contract that Blank eventually gave Jones an adjunct role on the compensation committee — but it was a nonvoting position, with limited influence
So Jones set about establishing himself as an opposition government to Goodell. He told at least two owners that he represented a silent majority inside the membership, giving voice to a building frustration among owners over the commissioner’s leadership. Jones tried to rally support to not only scuttle Goodell’s new contract but also, as some owners interpreted it, topple him altogether. He hired the powerhouse litigator David Boies, and in a conference call with members of the committee, Jones vowed to sue them all if they went forward with Goodell’s new deal.
Jones also became more and more direct in his disapproval of how the N.F.L. was handling the protests. He tore into the Clinton alum Joe Lockhart, whom he believed had been too aggressive in his response to Trump’s attacks on the league — and disrespectful to the president himself. “Everyone should know, including the president, this is what real locker-room talk is,” Lockhart said in a September conference call with reporters. It was a clear shot at Trump’s attempt to explain away a leaked “Access Hollywood” video, in which he infamously described grabbing women by their genitals without their consent, as “locker room talk” during the 2016 campaign.
A week and a half after Trump’s Alabama speech stirred players to protest en masse, Jones announced that any Cowboys player who did not stand during the national anthem would not take the field. “If there’s anything that is disrespectful to the flag, then we will not play,” Jones said. This was widely deemed unhelpful by many at the league office and fellow owners struggling to quell the issue, and Goodell, too. “I think Roger’s feeling on it was that any ultimatum would only prompt a larger protest if you attempt to enforce it,” the Giants’ John Mara told me. Some owners, like Jones and Washington’s Snyder, may have believed Goodell should have “put the hammer down,” Mara said. “But I think most of us believed that would cause more problems than it would have solved.”
Not surprisingly, Jones’s threat to would-be kneelers also caught the attention of Trump, who promptly tweeted his praise for the Cowboys owner: “A big salute to Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, who will BENCH players who disrespect our Flag. ‘Stand for Anthem or sit for game!’” This was a week and a half after Trump advertised that he had spoken to Jones (“Jerry is a winner who knows how to get things done”). If there’s one thing Trump understands, it’s how to manipulate needy billionaires. In addition to being probably the two most powerful, successful and visible owners in the league, Jones and Kraft share a basic insecurity, and also something of a rivalry. They compete for alpha-dog status within the membership, for Super Bowl rings (Kraft has five, Jones three) and Hall of Fame gold jackets (Jones 1, Kraft 0). Both men also prize the limelight and the company of celebrity friends. Both go way back with Trump, and it could not have been lost on Jones that Trump so conspicuously cozied up to Kraft during the presidential campaign — and even more so after Trump won the presidency and Kraft’s Patriots won their fifth Super Bowl last February. Within a few days of the game, Kraft joined Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan for a private dinner at Mar-a-Lago
Some of Jones’s fellow owners, meanwhile, had begun describing Jones as the N.F.L.’s own version of Trump: a big-talking, attention-seeking billionaire showman who was easily dismissed as a carnival barker. When I asked Jones about this comparison last spring, he was clearly thrilled. Trump’s ascent, he said, “is one of the great stories in America. And let me tell you this,” he went on: “The president ain’t no joke. He’s got as good a chance to be right as any of them.”
The owners’ final scheduled meeting of the season, in early December at a Four Seasons outside Dallas, looked for a while as if it would be a Texas showdown. As it turned out, all the major issues with Goodell’s contract were resolved, and the contract was actually signed, before anyone got to Texas. Jones did deliver a stemwinder of a speech in an owners-only session, complaining that the ranchers should have more say in how the league was run. But his message appeared lost on most of the room. “Jerry, you just spoke for about 40 minutes, and I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Kraft said after Jones finished.
It was possible, even likely, that Jones could have built a formidable coalition of owners against Goodell before the season — several of them had grown frustrated with aspects of his leadership — and could have leaned on him harder to be more combative with players over their protests. But by December, most of the membership had grown weary of Jones’s antics: his threat to sue if he did not get his way; his perceived grandstanding over the anthem protests; his self-appointment, during the contentious owners’ meeting in October, as the league’s “senior owner.”
Everyone pretty much agreed that it was time to end this chapter and move on to the final weeks of the season. In a hallway interview, Blank played down differences with “my good friend Jerry.” The Colts’ owner, Jim Irsay, praised Jones as “a Texas gentleman.” In a brief news conference afterward, Goodell was asked if he took Jones’s rebellion personally. “Do I look like I take it personally?” Goodell replied. No one quite knew how to answer that. “Jerry, do I look like I take it personally?” Goodell said, pointing to Jones, who was standing behind him and didn’t seem to know how to answer that either. Either way, $200 million can buy a lot of therapy.
When I visited Goodell in his office a month later, his demeanor betrayed a mix of relief, fatigue and a perhaps surprising measure of self-satisfaction. After all, so much vulnerability in the league had been revealed this season. When I suggested as much, Goodell assumed a seen-it-all-before jadedness. “Remember, I came into the league in 1982,” Goodell told me. “We were facing litigation about the Raiders move,” from Oakland to Los Angeles. “We were on strike for nine weeks. There was a competing league. We had a lot of issues going on.”
By comparison, he said, 2017 had merely been a year of “transition.” Discussing his dealings with the N.F.L. Players Coalition, he enthused about the “unprecedented dialogue” between players and owners. “One of the players said, ‘We’re sitting here not in a locker room, not on a field,’” Goodell told me. “‘We were sitting in a board room and dealing with each other as partners.’ That understanding and listening was remarkable, and really a powerful thing for us as a league.”
It’s easy to be cynical about this — to dismiss the league’s financial commitment to community and social-justice initiatives just as a way to placate the agitators. A group of players, led by San Francisco’s Eric Reid — one of Kaepernick’s original allies in the anthem protests — recently left the coalition, believing the commitment was just that. Kaepernick remains unemployed. Other reports have trickled out of lower-profile players who demonstrated feeling their job prospects were diminished. There is no question that future protesters in the N.F.L. protest at their career peril. What happens when, say, an Eric Reid, a mainstay at safety for the 49ers for the last five seasons, becomes a free agent this winter? “How do we make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else?” Okung, who also left the coalition, asked me, referring to Kaepernick’s situation. “Reparations need to be made in some manner.” Still, many players and owners I spoke to seemed to give Goodell the benefit of the doubt. “I think he handled things as well as you could expect in this situation,” Mara told me.
But while Goodell and the N.F.L. may have survived 2017, the commissioner and his league seem to be at the mercy of very uncertain and uncontrollable events in the future. The conflicts of 1982 that Goodell evoked might have been more dramatic and certainly “distracting” — that year’s regular season was shrunk to nine games on account of a players’ strike. But they were also more easily resolved. The dilemmas of 2017 were more profound: There was no obvious common ground between Jerry Jones’s vision of the football field as a “respite” and Kaepernick’s vision of it as a platform. The players weren’t kneeling to gain leverage or extract donations, or anything else Goodell or anyone in the league could give them. They were trying to make themselves heard. “I talked to a lot of players who were saying, ‘Man, I don’t need to be quieter, I need to be louder,’” the Bengals’ Eric Winston, the union president, told me. “That to me was the key takeaway from this season.” And what happens if an owner like Jones decides to take matters into his own hands and “fire” players if their protests continue?
“Our focus is on what we do,” Goodell said, punting, when I asked him to speculate. “And always trying to figure out the best way to get ahead of issues and focusing on what we can control.” I pushed further: What happens if next season comes around and a handful of players are still kneeling and protesting? What if Trump tries to rekindle the issue, as you figure he’d love to do, just in time for the 2018 midterm elections — or, for that matter, fires off a tweet calling on viewers to turn off the Super Bowl in the event that any players kneel, prompting the players to do exactly that?
“You’re dealing with hypotheticals,” Goodell said. “You can come up with five scenarios of what could happen.”
Football is always generating new scenarios. That’s part of what makes it so great and so fascinating. But not all scenarios stay between the sidelines — or stay hypothetical.
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