Jerry Jones is having a bad year. His football team was close to going to the Super Bowl last season but was denied in the playoffs when Aaron Rodgers managed an improbable pass completion, breaking the hearts of all true fans of the Dallas Cowboys and especially that of the team’s owner. The Cowboys had not been to the big game since 1996. This is a long time of wandering, parched in the desert, for “America’s Team.”
Jones wants it. Badly. He dumped a coach, Jimmy Johnson, who had won back-to-back Super Bowls. The firing offense was that Johnson said that Jones didn’t have that much to do with getting the Cowboys to the big game. That he was, in essence, the money but not the brains of the operation.
Jones believes he knows football as well as any mere coach. And he does, in truth, understand the game, having played for a University of Arkansas team that won a national championship.
The Cowboys won another Super Bowl, under the coach who followed Johnson. This may, or may not, have proved Jones’ point. He seemed satisfied that it had and went about building his team into the signature NFL franchise, even as it kept failing to get back to the dance.
Still, Jones did things large. He built himself a stadium that is as big and gaudy as all of Texas. He is a willing interview and gives good quotes. The casual fan probably could not name more than one or two owners of an NFL team. But people who don’t know, or care, much about football can tell you who Jerry Jones is.
The other owners certainly know who Jerry Jones is. As do the people who work in the NFL home office. Including Roger Goodell, who is the league’s top executive in this season of its discontent.
Goodell, as has been widely reported, wants a contract extension. He’d like to be paid $50 million or so in salary and have guaranteed lifetime health care for himself. There is also something about free jet travel, also for life.
A committee of owners is working to get this deal done and Jerry Jones doesn’t like it and has threatened legal action. Goodell suspended one of the Cowboys’ stars but Jones says his problems with the commissioner go deeper than that. But Jones appears to be alone in his desire to rein in Goodell and maybe even get rid of him. It has made Jones into something of a pariah and some stories suggest that other owners are angry enough to vote Jones out of the club.
But what if he is right and, also, the strongman the NFL needs?
It is no secret — certainly not to the owners — that the NFL has troubles. All of football, for that matter, has troubles. You could make a plausible case that in twenty years, there won’t be anything that resembles football as it is played now. The stories about brain-damaged, suicidal former NFL players are too troubling to ignore. Especially for parents of kids who want to put on the pads and knock heads. And, then, there are the liability issues for high school and college football programs. The NFL set aside $1 billion recently for players who had suffered long-term damage to the brain. High schools, even in Texas, would have trouble putting their hands on that kind of cash.
Then, of course, there is the public relations hit the league has taken over the players “taking a knee” during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner. There are empty seats in stadiums these days; the no-show fans having had enough.
The NFL, which is saturated with the concepts and conceits of public relations, is trying to counter this through the usual, transparent methods. During the broadcasts of its games, the NFL runs spot ads with players looking into the camera and saying how much they respect people who serve in the military. I saw one of those ads just after talking to a man who is active duty Special Forces and has done several tours in Afghanistan. Seeing the flag, when you were deep in the Kush, did something to you, he said, so he didn’t have much use for the players who were taking a knee in a gesture of disrespect. He was done with football.
Maybe the NFL will rescue itself through PR. It is how Goodell rolls. He hired Joe Lockhart to be the NFL’s executive vice president of communications and see if he couldn’t paint some lipstick on this pig of a season. Lockhart was, of course, one of Bill Clinton’s spinmeisters, a credential that says a lot about how Goodell and the NFL hierarchy see the problem.
Jerry Jones, perhaps, sees it differently. Much of what he does and says is driven by vanity and his epic ego. But he does know football and loves the game. One suspects that he gets it about what is happening to football and understands that just trying to paper it over with phony ads about how much the players revere our servicemen isn’t enough. Football and the NFL need to reconnect and get back that atavistic appeal that made it the biggest draw in the world.
Roger Goodell and the owners who support him appreciate the corporate side of football but have a less sure grip on what drives and motivates the game’s fans. He is the commissioner who will preside over the slow decline of the NFL’s spirit even as it penetrates more markets and takes in more money in the form of broadcast rights.
Back in the old and better days of football, the NFL was challenged by a rival league. The American Football League got into a bidding war for talent and hung in long enough to force a merger with the NFL. The first commissioner of the AFL was a man named Joe Foss who saw the future and secured it with a television deal with ABC. After that, the merger was inevitable.
Foss was a poor farm kid from South Dakota whose father died in an accident. This left the young Foss to get the family through. He worked on the farm and at various jobs, while he struggled to a college degree and learned to fly. He became a Marine aviator shortly before Pearl Harbor. He flew a tubby little fighter called a “Wildcat” and shot down 26 Japanese planes in the Guadalcanal campaign, when the outcome of the war was still no sure thing for the United States. He came home to conduct war bond tours and appear on the cover of Life magazine. After the war, he was elected Governor of South Dakota. Twice. Later, in addition to his six years as head of the American Football League, he did hunting and fishing shows on television. In 1988, he became president of the National Rifle Association and served two one-year terms.
Maybe the best story about Joe Foss is the movie project about his life in which John Wayne, a friend, was to play the lead. The script included a bit about a love affair that never happened and was put there, no doubt, for the usual Hollywood reasons. Foss saw it for a phony and didn’t like it. So he killed the project.
You wonder if the NFL would be letting the players take a knee, and drive away fans disgusted by the disrespect shown the flag, if someone like Joe Foss were in charge.
You suspect that if Foss were in charge, that when he talked, both Jerry Jones and Colin Kaepernick would listen.