In an embarrassing and trying season for NFL owners, Shahid Khan stands — remarkable, fresh-faced and triumphant — as an example the league desperately needed. Look at him: compassionate, vocal, free thinking. He also happens to be a dark-skinned Muslim with a signature handlebar mustache that deserves its own theme music.
He's different. That's wonderful. His Jacksonville Jaguars are no longer court jesters, and now that they have a wicked defense and promising future, you can see the man Khan has always been. Just like the Jaguars have experienced a breakthrough after a 10-year postseason absence, the 67-year-old Khan has emerged as an intriguing owner. Under uncomfortable circumstances for wealthy billionaires accustomed to being left alone while they monitor their ridiculous NFL profits, Khan has been better than most of his aloof and callous brethren. He has been accessible, humane and sincere.
It shouldn't matter whether you agree with his stances on player protests, President Trump's policies or simply what being an American means. What resonates is that Khan was willing to give a damn, even when it would have been better for business to stay silent or issue one of those say-nothing statements that reads like a student trying to satisfy an essay's word requirement. What matters most is that Khan, in these divisive times, shares the valuable, intrinsic perspective of a man born in Pakistan who immigrated to the United States at 16 to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, made himself into a billionaire in the auto parts industry and personified the American Dream.
Other owners — most of them white men older than Khan with boilerplate backgrounds and cookie-cutter beliefs and values — struggled with the polarity of this season. It wasn't merely that they disagreed with the player protests; the real problem was that they didn't understand their players' societal concerns and didn't care to ask about and contribute to a feasible solution until the matter became so important it needed to be negotiated. Some leaped recklessly into the discord in September after Trump disparaged the league, locked arms to support their players without considering the repercussions and then backpedaled like a defensive back covering a speedy receiver.
But Khan was more consistent. During the Week 3 protests — the pivotal moment of the season — he linked arms with Jacksonville tight end Marcedes Lewis and linebacker Telvin Smith before a game in London. He closed his eyes and clenched a fist during the national anthem. It was the first game since Trump went after the NFL, and Khan provided an indelible image of the league's resistance. Then Khan, who voted for Trump and donated $1 million to his inaugural committee, responded with a genuine explanation.
"Our team and the National Football League reflects our nation, with diversity coming in many forms — race, faith, our views and our goals," he said in a statement. "We have a lot of work to do, and we can do it, but the comments by the President make it harder. That's why it was important for us, and personally for me, to show the world that even if we may differ at times, we can and should be united in the effort to become better as people and a nation."
Khan has also spoken against Trump's proposal of a travel ban for residents of seven Muslim-majority countries. And last week, when Jacksonville hosted and won a first-round playoff game against Buffalo, Khan and the Jaguars Foundation donated 1,000 tickets — 500 to refugees who live in Northeast Florida and another 500 to Puerto Rican families in North and Central Florida displaced by Hurricane Maria.
Khan used a moment that could have been all about how he turned around a laughingstock franchise and sent a bigger message. Was it a political statement? Of course. But it was also a kind and emphatic gesture that, for at least three hours, injected some humanity into the often hostile current conversation about immigrants and refugees.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell attended the game and emphasized the positive impact Khan is having on the league. When Khan reached an agreement to buy the team in 2011, the challenge to resurrect the Jaguars was immense. During his early years as an owner, it seemed Khan was more likely to move the team to London than enjoy success in Florida. But as the Jaguars prepare to visit Pittsburgh in the divisional round, they are one of the league's best young teams. Winning illuminates Khan's value.
"Shad has this great optimism and this great enthusiasm, and he believes in this community and he believes in the NFL and the Jaguars and he wants to make everything better," Goodell told reporters last week.
Goodell added: "He's been incredibly valuable to us on the league level [and] he's involved in a lot of different communities. There's not many things I don't want to speak to Shad about to get his perspective on. He's become an incredibly valuable owner in a short period of time."
Last month, I wrote about why the NFL needs to make ownership diversity a greater priority. Some oversimplified the point and griped that I was trying to create affirmative action or a Rooney Rule for owners, which is silly because only an elite group of wealthy people have the money to own an NFL team. You must be a billionaire, preferably one many times over, to feel comfortable running a competitive franchise. In this country, an overwhelming majority of billionaires are older white males who gradually built their large fortunes.
Khan is the lone nonwhite NFL majority owner. There are six women, but they are either very old (two in their 90s) or they inherited ownership from their husbands or fathers. The league would benefit from any kind of improved diversity in the ownership ranks: age, race, gender, approach, thought. It's important because it is becoming clear that the league needs to evolve. On just about every issue it faces, the NFL is too slow to react and not thinking enough about long-term implications. It's worth considering the impact that fresh perspectives can have.
The issue has long been considered in the league office. Twenty years ago, when Goodell was the NFL's executive vice president for football development, he made diversity a part of his agenda. When the league decided to return a franchise to Cleveland, Goodell visited Washington to meet with BET co-founder Robert Johnson, who later became an NBA owner in Charlotte.
The price was too high for Johnson, as it would be for many who are still building wealth. You don't hand out NFL franchises because it's a cool idea; acquiring a team is a high-stakes business deal. But diversity can still be an aspiration. The NFL — all sports leagues — can do a better job of targeting intriguing, fresh owner candidates and being transparent with them about how to own a team eventually. When minority stakes in teams are available, leagues can do a better job of having a diverse list of vetted investors to suggest to owners.
When Khan was building his business, he made it known that he wanted to own an NFL team. Jerry Colangelo, who once owned the NBA's Phoenix Suns and MLB's Arizona Diamondbacks, mentored him. Six years ago, the Jacksonville opportunity presented itself. Khan purchased a team that many thought couldn't succeed. Khan considered it a dream realized.
Now, he exemplifies not only the best of what the NFL is, but what it can be.
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