Joe Lockhart, the former White House press secretary who has been the NFL’s chief communications officer and primary spokesman for the past two years, is leaving the league.
Lockhart told members of his staff he is stepping aside after the Super Bowl to spend more time with his family, do political commentary and perhaps teach.
The league office informed NFL teams Thursday of the pending change.
It’s not immediately clear what the NFL will do to replace him. He had served as the NFL’s executive vice president of communications and public affairs.
Colleagues said Lockhart was not being forced out, but his exit comes after a turbulent 2017 season in which the NFL was involved in a public feud with President Trump regarding players’ protests during the national anthem. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league office also came under attack by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who tried unsuccessfully to block Goodell’s five-year contract extension.
“He was brought in as an agent of change,” said one person familiar with the league’s inner workings. “He has a young family. I don’t think he was prepared to commit four or five more years to doing this.”
Goodell wrote in a memo to teams’ chief executives and club presidents that Lockhart had informed him and Tod Leiweke, the NFL’s chief operating officer, of his intention to step aside.
“We appreciate Joe’s expertise and commitment to the NFL and the league’s communications department,” Goodell wrote. “Joe helped modernize our communications, social responsibility and government affairs teams and has provided valuable guidance to me and our senior management on a wide variety of issues.
“A national search is now underway for his replacement and Joe has agreed to stay on and help during the transition.”
Lockhart, 58, served as White House press secretary from 1998 to 2000 during the Clinton administration. He was hired by the NFL in 2016 after working with the league and Goodell through an affiliated communications firm.
“While I’ve marveled at what you all have done over the last two years, I realized that keeping up that 24 hour a day intensity was a challenge for me personally,” Lockhart wrote in a memo to the league’s communications, social responsibility and government affairs staffs. “For those of you who’ve met my three children, you know why I’m excited to focus more attention on providing them the best possible environment to grow and prosper.
“After the season, I plan to take some time off, do some political commentary, maybe go back to teaching if I can find some students willing to listen. I will be available to all of you should an old man’s advice ever be of interest.”
Lockhart was a vocal and forceful presence during his time in the league. He responded aggressively to reports he deemed unfair to the league’s record on health and safety issues. This season, he conducted regular conference calls with reporters to make certain the NFL’s views on relevant issues were known.
“When I got here, my mission was to shake things up a bit,” Lockhart wrote in Thursday’s memo. “As one of the most important and iconic cultural institutions in our country, the NFL is subject to almost as much scrutiny as our Government. Americans’ passion for the game generates debates every bit as heated as those in politics. In fact, as I’ve shared with some of you, the two years in this role feels a lot like my two years as White House press secretary.
“Given that dynamic, I knew we had to get more aggressive about getting our message out and more agile in promoting and protecting the game and the league. I believe we’ve accomplished much of that by becoming a more transparent organization that every day tries to drive the narrative we all believe in so strongly. I emphasize ‘try,’ as we’ll always have days where our best offense requires playing tenacious defense.”
It has been a season overflowing with controversies for the PR-conscious league. Trump said at a speech in September that owners should fire any players who protest during the anthem, igniting a passionate national debate about the protests and patriotism. The league and many owners expressed support for players, although Jones said he would bench any player who protested during the anthem.
Owners declined at a meeting in October to enact a policy change requiring players to stand for the anthem, and focused instead on discussions with a group of players that eventually led to a social justice accord by which teams and the league will contribute to players’ community activism. According to people familiar with the situation, the owners could take action in the offseason to change the anthem policy for next season and keep players in the locker room until after the anthem is played.
Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who began the players’ protest movement last season by refusing to stand for the anthem before games to bring attention to issues related to racial inequality and police treatment of African Americans, filed a grievance accusing teams of colluding to keep him out of the league this season.
The NFL’s television ratings were down for a second straight season while star players such as Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt and Odell Beckham Jr. were sidelined for long stretches with significant injuries. Jones threatened to sue fellow owners to keep Goodell’s new contract from going through, and other owners accused him of being guilty of conduct detrimental to the league that could result in possible disciplinary measures. But Jones eventually backed down Goodell’s new deal, worth as much as $40 million per season, will run through 2024.
Lockhart said at the December owners’ meeting in Irving, Tex., that Goodell viewed this as his final contract before retirement. Goodell did not confirm that, saying at that meeting that he hadn’t made a decision. But others within the league confirmed that Goodell had told owners he would get them through the negotiations for the next labor deal with the players and the league’s next set of TV contracts, and then walk away.
Officials in some teams’ front offices were unhappy with the league office’s approach to dealing with the crisis brought on by Trump’s comments. They believed that the league should not have responded so publicly and directly. The controversy, in their view, would not have been as intense.
Jones, who took issue with the league’s handling of the investigation that led to the six-game suspension of Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott under the personal conduct policy, said at the December owners’ meeting that he would continue to press for changes. He was not specific. But there was speculation at the time that those changes could include an attempt by Jones and perhaps other owners to force an overhaul of the league office.
“As with any organization of any type whether it be business, social or otherwise, you have to evolve and you have to make changes,” Jones said then. “And frankly, that is what this has been about. Now, if you saw anything happening, did I cause them to be made? You can’t one person do it in the National Football League. It takes 32 owners to make the changes. And so anything that was done differently about this contract was done by all 32 owners.”
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