When the Super Bowl ends on Sunday and confetti falls from the rafters at SoFi Stadium, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will take the stage for the Lombardi Trophy presentation. He will not hand the trophy to Joe Burrow, the young hotshot quarterback who has revitalized the Bengals franchise. Nor will he hand it to Matthew Stafford, the veteran who has seized his chance to break through after being traded from the Lions to the Rams. Nor will Goodell hand the hardware to Aaron Donald, Cooper Kupp, Ja’Marr Chase, or Odell Beckham Jr. He won’t even give it to one of the head coaches, the Rams’ Sean McVay or the Bengals’ Zac Taylor.
Instead, Goodell will hand the trophy to one of two people: Rams owner Stan Kroenke or Bengals owner Mike Brown. Kroenke, 74, might be the most unpopular sports owner on earth, at least going by the sheer number of places where he is hated. Arsenal fans took to the streets of London in 2021 to demand that he sell the team after the European Super League debacle; abandoned St. Louis fans printed his face on urinal cakes in 2019 after Kroenke moved the Rams to Los Angeles. Brown, 86, inherited the Bengals after his father died in 1991; incidentally, the franchise that went to the Super Bowl in 1989 didn’t win a playoff game between 1991 and this January. Brown has been widely criticized for running the team as cheaply as possible, cutting costs on things like “scouting” and “player hydration.” He also staffed the Bengals front office with his immediate family members.
One of these men will receive the Lombardi Trophy, though, because this is the way that sports trophy presentations work in the United States. When a championship ends, the commissioner gives the trophy to the owner of the winning team. Legally, that team owner is then considered the owner of the trophy. When former Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander sold the franchise to Tilman Fertitta in 2017, he kept the two championship trophies the Rockets won in the 1990s. There was nothing the team could do about it. It had to order replicas.
Strictly from an entertainment perspective, the owner-centric trophy presentation is a huge letdown. Think about the best trophy ceremonies in sports: when an NHL team captain receives the Stanley Cup and lifts it over his head; when an Olympian stands atop the podium, gold medal around their neck, as the national anthem plays. These moments are iconic because they’re centered on the athletes who just triumphed. We want to see the people we cheered for in the moment they’ve dreamed about.
But in many pro sports, athletes are pushed into the background during the trophy presentation. Watch this clip from January 30 after the Bengals beat the Chiefs to clinch the AFC championship. Everybody who watched the game wanted to hear from Burrow, the league’s ascending star whose cool confidence has made him the nation’s sweetheart. Instead, we got Brown.
The NFL has clearly put a lot of thought into making its trophy ceremony an event. In 1996, the league stopped staging the ceremony in a locker room and moved it to a custom-built stage in the middle of the field. Beginning in 2005, the league debuted a processional, in which a series of NFL legends parade the trophy through a sea of players up to the commissioner. To go along with the parade, the league commissioned a special song, “Lombardi Trophy Processional.” (It is extremely repetitive.) The NFL thought every part of this presentation out and decided it should culminate with the trophy going to a billionaire standing on a giant stage above his players.
The issues with centering trophy ceremonies on team owners go beyond the lack of entertainment value, though. These moments are supposed to be about celebrating spectacular athletic achievement. Not only do team owners have little to do with that achievement, but they’re also responsible for many of the biggest problems in modern professional sports. They’re the last people who should be the focus in these moments of climactic joy.
Trophy presentation ceremonies in sports didn’t have to be this way. The on-ice presentation of the Stanley Cup to the winning team’s captain dates back to the 1950s; it is such a cherished and established tradition that NHL owners have never become part of the process. Once upon a time in the NBA, the championship trophy went to the winning team’s head coach. Here is footage from 1975 featuring commissioner Walter Kennedy presenting the league’s trophy to Warriors head coach Al Attles.
The Commissioner’s Trophy in MLB has technically always been presented to three people: the manager, general manager, and owner of the team that wins the World Series. Here is a 1981 video of MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn presenting the trophy to the Dodgers’ brain trust; the three men rejoice in a group hug, with no one individually lifting the trophy.
Even the NFL once gave its trophy to head coaches. After Green Bay beat Oakland in Super Bowl II, the still-unnamed trophy was handed to its future namesake, Packers head coach Vince Lombardi. And after Super Bowl IV, commissioner Pete Rozelle stood between Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt and head coach Hank Stram—and awarded the trophy to Stram.
By Super Bowl IX, in 1975, however, the NFL had settled on a different policy. After Pittsburgh defeated Minnesota, Rozelle didn’t hesitate to hand the trophy to Steelers owner Art Rooney.
You can see the NBA change its policy over the course of a few videos. In 1977, it debuted a new championship trophy, now called the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The first time O’Brien, then the commissioner, gave it out, he presented it to Trail Blazers head coach Jack Ramsay, calling Ramsay out by name to make sure he got his hands on it first. In 1979, O’Brien pump-faked the trophy toward Sonics owner Sam Schulman before stepping back so that Schulman and head coach Lenny Wilkens put their hands on the trophy simultaneously. In 1980, though, there was no hesitation. O’Brien gave the trophy to Lakers owner Jerry Buss.
Since the World Series trophy is still nominally presented to a brain-trust triumvirate, the ceremony isn’t exactly the same every time. But protocol is for the commissioner to hand the trophy to the team owner. Here is a clip from 2017 of Rob Manfred giving it to Astros owner Jim Crane:
The U.S. is the only country to structure its trophy ceremonies in this way. Watch just about any soccer trophy presentation—the trophy goes to the team captain, who holds it low for a few seconds, then joyously hoists it in unison with his team. This is the standard in multiple sports across multiple continents. Here is the Grand Final of the Australian Football League; the team captain and the coach share the trophy. Here is the final of the Indian Premier League in cricket; the team captain gets the trophy. European women’s handball? Captain gets the trophy. South African rugby? You guessed it! The captain gets the trophy.
People outside the U.S. are understandably baffled by our tradition. After the 2021 NBA Finals, Australian sports reporter Matthew Sullivan remarked on the “archaic ritual” by which owners receive the trophy “even before the Bucks players or coach who did all the hard work out on the court.”
But pro sports team ownership in the U.S. fundamentally differs from pro sports team ownership in other countries. In sports leagues elsewhere, team owners can fail. If a team performs poorly, it can be relegated out of a top league and fall into irrelevance. If an organization is unprofitable and the owner is unable to pay the bills, well, that team is doomed.
Take Leeds United, for example. It was a Premier League contender during the 1990s, but became insolvent in the early 2000s and dropped down to England’s third division, only fighting its way back to the top flight in recent years after more financially sound ownership took over. This is the system Kroenke was specifically trying to avoid when he attempted to help launch the European Super League that sparked all of those protests. When U.S. sports team owners like Kroenke and Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer purchased powerhouse European soccer teams, they were apparently shocked to find out that their investments could, hypothetically, fail.
NFL ownership, by comparison, is the easiest job in the world. There is no punishment for failure. A team can go 0-17 and be fine—in fact, that team will be rewarded with the top pick in the draft. A team could go an entire season without selling tickets and still generate tens of millions of dollars: The Packers’ publicly available financial reports indicate that the franchise turned $60 million in profit in 2020—profit, not revenue—despite not being allowed to sell tickets because of COVID-19. Each team receives about $300 million from the league every year, primarily from the colossal TV deals that have ballooned as the NFL expanded both its regular season and its playoffs. Meanwhile, player salaries are capped at 48.5 percent of league revenue. In this system, it’s impossible for the owners to screw up.
But it’s not just impossible for NFL owners to screw up financially—it’s unclear whether they could do anything that would result in legitimate punishment. The league recently investigated Washington owner Dan Snyder for sexual harrassment and promoting a toxic workplace. But it seems unlikely that Snyder will ever be punished, considering the league entered a “joint defense agreement” with him and gave him veto power over the public release of the investigation. Former Panthers owner Jerry Richardson reportedly harassed his employees and used racial slurs in the workplace, but he received no punishment from the NFL. Before the league could act, Richardson sold the franchise for $2.2 billion. (The value of NFL teams is increasing rapidly; the Broncos are expected to sell for more than $4 billion.) Richardson no longer owns the Panthers, so the NFL feels as if it did its job—but if you get $2.2 billion, things turned out pretty well for you.
The NFL’s owners have also come under fire for their failure to hire Black coaches or Black general managers. On February 1, former Dolphins head coach Brian Flores filed a class-action racial discrimination lawsuit against the league that mentions how none of the NFL’s 32 franchises have ever had a Black majority owner. “Owners are ultimately responsible for leading the entire organization,” the lawsuit says. “The lack of any Black voices in ownership clearly has led to a dearth of opportunities for Black general managers, which has in turn undermined racial inclusion in the NFL for more than 100 years.” There are rules in place that stipulate teams must interview minority candidates for open head-coaching positions, but there doesn’t appear to be any punishment for franchises that ignore them, as the Raiders seemed to do when hiring Jon Gruden in 2018.
There is a reason the NFL has become a place where owners cannot be punished and are incapable of failing: The league is run by its owners. It is an association of its 32 franchises, and is ultimately designed to serve their best interests. Therefore, many of the league’s problems are caused by the owners. They have a say in everything, including the very rules by which the game is played. (Thank Giants owner John Mara for the league’s wildly unpopular emphasis on taunting.) It’s easy to blame Goodell for the NFL’s myriad missteps, but the commissioner is elected by team owners and can be replaced if they feel he isn’t representing them adequately. Why would the owners create a league that could investigate them when they could create a league that makes a show of giving one of them a trophy?
I can imagine a world in which a team owner is worthy of being handed a championship trophy, but the NFL is not it. I don’t think the owners deserve credit for the league’s unbridled success—many prominent sports leagues are experiencing booming profits, including college football, which doesn’t have any centralized form of leadership. The main reason for the NFL’s success is that people really, really like watching football. And while some NFL owners are certainly more responsible for their team’s success than others, that’s not exactly because those owners are great football minds. The best owners stay as far away from football decision-making as possible and rely on the smart people they’ve hired to run the team.
NFL ownership is the closest thing we have to monarchy in the U.S. Team owners are guaranteed lifelong wealth, and rule with knowledge that they cannot be punished. When they die, their thrones are passed down to their children. And when the battles fought by their minions are over, they get to claim responsibility for any victory. They get to bask in applause as they are presented with a hunk of shiny metal. It’s a coronation.
I suppose this makes sense. U.S. team owners have secured generational wealth, complete power over their leagues, total impunity to screw up, and absolute freedom from failure. They don’t need to also butt in at the most glorious moment of their players’ careers—but they do it anyway. Of course they get the trophy. They have already won in every conceivable way.