The NFL on Wednesday extended the contract of Commissioner Roger Goodell for another five years, ending an unusually rancorous monthslong standoff with Jerry Jones, the Dallas Cowboys’ owner, who wanted to derail the deal.
A committee of owners negotiating Goodell’s compensation signed off on a contract worth roughly $200 million over five years, which is in line with his current deal. But, unlike his current arrangement, nearly 90 percent of the potential compensation will be paid only if a variety of financial targets are met.
The NFL and its commissioner routinely negotiate such matters behind closed doors. But this year, disorder among owners spilled out in public, leading to an extraordinary tit-for-tat of threats of legal action and rebukes that added to the sense of a league anxious over its future.
Despite declining television ratings, persistent worries about the safety of the game and a backlash against the league because of players protesting during the national anthem, the league is still a financial juggernaut, with $14 billion in annual revenue. That is a big reason the owners are comfortable keeping Goodell — who became commissioner in 2006 — on for another five years.
But with anxiety over the league’s weaknesses growing, Jones and other owners wanted to ensure Goodell continued to focus on growing the league’s business. As a result, they have insisted that most of his compensation in the coming years be based on the NFL hitting financial targets, with various owners signing off on bonuses linked to the targets.
Jones sparked one of the most bitter intraleague fights in years when he threatened to sue the members of the six-man compensation committee, made up of the owners of the Kansas City Chiefs, the Atlanta Falcons, the New York Giants, the New England Patriots, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Houston Texans. The committee had been working since May on the new contract, which would take effect in March 2019. The owners were eager to finish the deal before talks to renegotiate the league’s labor and media deals begin in earnest in the next couple of years.
Jones, one of the most powerful and mercurial owners, had other plans. Though he voted along with every other owner in May to extend Goodell’s contract and empower the compensation committee to work out the details, he tried to disrupt the negotiations starting in August, after Goodell suspended Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott for his role in a domestic violence case.
After months of pressuring the committee as an ad hoc member, and lobbying the wider group of owners, Jones told the six committee members in early November that he had drawn up legal papers and would sue them if they did not bend to his will. The unusually caustic showdown that followed, which has led the committee to communicate with Jones only through lawyers, all but ended last week when Jones dropped his threat.
Jones has denied that he was trying to upend the contract talks as payback for the suspension. But the timing of his efforts looked more than coincidental. Two days before Elliott’s suspension in mid-August, Jones signed off on the broad outline of Goodell’s new contract, which was based largely on bonuses that Jones wanted as a way to ensure that the commissioner worked hard to raise the league’s revenue.
After Elliott was suspended, Jones began to insist that all 32 owners, not just the committee, have a chance to vote on the new contract, because conditions at the league had changed, including a continued decline in television ratings and a widening controversy over players refusing to stand for the national anthem.
In October, Jones persuaded some owners that it was best to delay completing the contract to avoid the public spectacle of giving the commissioner a deal worth potentially as much as $200 million while residents in Florida and Texas were still recovering from hurricanes and President Donald Trump was criticizing the league for not forcing players to stand for the anthem.
But after Elliott’s legal appeals to his suspension ran out, and the committee continued to work quietly on the contract extension, Jones told the committee on Nov. 2 that he had hired the high-profile lawyer David Boies and that he was prepared to go to court to stop the negotiations. Faced with potential punishment, Jones dropped his threat to sue just before Thanksgiving.
Arthur Blank, the owner of the Falcons and the chairman of the committee, said that the committee was within its rights to complete the contract and that the committee members would keep all owners apprised of their work. Almost in defiance of Jones, the committee accelerated talks to finish the contract. After he spent months trying to derail the negotiations, Jones’ efforts in effect backfired.
In a letter sent to every owner on Wednesday, Blank said that Goodell’s contract extension “is fully consistent with ‘market’ compensation” and is “in the best interests of ownership.” Contrary to Jones’ efforts to derail the deal, Blank said there was nearly a consensus to offer Goodell an extension and to move quickly “to avoid further controversy surrounding this issue.”
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