Roger Goodell was probably the most criticized man in America in the fall of 2014, during the Ray Rice scandal. In the wake of it, a small group of owners made sure to quickly and publicly declare that the NFL commissioner’s job was not only safe, but that he was doing great.
Within days of all of the footage of Rice assaulting his then-fiancée (now wife) going public—and Goodell then increasing Rice’s suspension from two games to “indefinite”—Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones dropped a somewhat convoluted offensive line analogy to say he supported Goodell’s decision. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft also appeared on the airwaves that week and said Goodell had been “excellent” on the Rice case.
The majority of NFL owners had gone silent on the league’s handling of Rice, and questions swirled about the future of, well, everyone involved. And here were two of the league’s most powerful owners openly backing a person whose blunders were leading the nightly news.
The following May, Goodell alienated Kraft by suspending Tom Brady for four games and stripping the Patriots of draft picks after L’affaire Deflate. One of Goodell’s biggest public supporters in his dealings with New England? You guessed it: Jerry Jones. Here’s Jones a couple of months later:
[He’s] doing an outstanding job. I can tell you firsthand that in his spot you have to with people that you are counting on to help build and to help excel as far as the National Football League, I’m talking about the owners, you have to know that you’re going to make some decisions that are very unpopular with that particular group. This is the case.
Two years after those comments, it seems as if Goodell has lost Jones, too.
On Friday, the league suspended star Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott for six games for a violation of the personal conduct policy after an investigation of allegations of domestic violence toward a partner in 2016 as well as the groping of another woman in March 2017. As ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported, the decision left Jones “furious.” Cowboys reporter Mike Fisher says the Cowboys are gearing up to appeal, file injunctions, and negotiate on the suspension. Jones, on the eve of training camp, said “the domestic violence is not an issue” in the investigation. As recently as last week, he was reiterating that he didn’t anticipate a suspension.
After a group of investigators showed him their findings, Goodell made the decision to suspend Elliott himself. But his ruling isn’t the end. This will drag on for weeks, months and, if Deflategate is much of a guide, years. The initial appeal, Schefter reported, is expected Tuesday.
Whatever happens next, the NFL commissioner has now pissed off two of the most powerful people in the league over the past two years. While the ramifications pale in comparison with allegations of what the two women at the core of these incidents experienced, Goodell is about to enter the most politically murky stretch of his career.
The Elliott suspension will not reach the cable-news heights of Rice and Deflategate. In fact, unlike with those two incidents, Goodell has been widely praised for issuing the suspension. Remember: Goodell put the six-game standard domestic violence suspension in place as a result of the intense criticism in 2014. Issuing it two years later when there’s a domestic violence incident with a high-profile player scans as relatively scandal-proof in the national media.
But here are the stakes: If Jones’s ire toward Goodell is real and lasting, the commissioner will be tasked with managing a room at league meetings where the most vocal people are shooting him daggers. The meetings happen every few months, and they provide a forum for owners to figure out minor rule changes and major money-making mechanisms. Imagine a typical awkward Thanksgiving dinner with your family in which everyone is mad at each other. Now imagine it occurring a handful of times a year with billions of dollars at stake.
Goodell isn’t going to lose his job—this is one angry owner upset about a suspension of a singular star—and most owners are going to support this particular decision. The broader point is that in every previous scandal, most of the rank-and-file owners listened to some combination of three power brokers—Kraft, Jones and New York Giants owner John Mara—and pretty much fell in line. If Goodell loses two of those three as fervent backers in the next heated crisis, his power could eventually be threatened. On Friday, ESPN’s Don Van Natta Jr. tweeted, “Never underestimate Goodell's political savvy,” while also pointing out that Jones applauded Goodell during Deflategate. Well, Goodell will need all of that political savvy to deal with Jones and the other owners. As Peter King pointed out, not only are Goodell’s two biggest boosters mad at him, but Steelers owner Dan Rooney, a mentor and supporter of Goodell, died this year.
Jones vs. the league office is going to be acrimonious. And if it becomes Jones vs. Goodell and it gets ugly, that’s going to considerably weaken Goodell. Stories of Jones taking over league meetings are legendary. The Sports Business Journal wrote that Jones “is known to take shots at other owners he feels are not doing enough to pull their weight.” The story goes on to recount the famous incident in which Jones offered to buy the naming rights for the Bengals stadium and then sell them because the team didn’t want to sell its name. Jones also famously led the charge for the owners to support moving the Rams to Los Angeles.
Now, that’s not to say that Jones will push for a change in the player-discipline process. The majority of owners think the league office as judge, jury, and executioner is an important part of the commissioner’s role. Even if they were to change it, it would be in exchange for huge givebacks in labor negotiations, not in response to Elliott.
Goodell’s only option here—he’s not going to reduce the suspension unless the facts suddenly warrant it—is to play nice with Jones and try to get back on his good side and hope he can survive an awkward time without some of his closest advisers to defend him if there’s a problem. After all, there are signs his relationship with the Patriots is thawing: The commissioner was in Foxborough this week for the first time since Deflategate.
We’ll know in October, when owners meet next, where Jones falls on Goodell in the short term. Jones taking over a meeting at the Bengals’ expense is one thing; him doing it at Goodell’s is another.