The NFL owner — for so long the most enviable, profitable and invincible position in American professional sports — doesn't look so hot now. He's choking on arrogance, ego and greed. This exclusive club of 32 brilliant knuckleheads bombed so badly in 2017 that, in a banished land far away, Colin Kaepernick probably laughs.
What went wrong? What didn't? First, the owners blackballed Kaepernick because his protest during the national anthem was a distraction. Then, for one week after President Trump said very mean things about the league and its protesting players, they joined the protest for ill-thought reasons. And then they tried to end the protests because somehow they didn't fully realize they were creating a revenue-draining monster. And then they started fighting among themselves because Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was mad at Commissioner Roger Goodell for suspending Ezekiel Elliott, who had been accused of domestic violence.
And we haven't even gotten to the part where Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson asked to shave the legs of his female employees.
The NFL has been ridiculed for being the No Fun League. Now, Richardson has made it the Naughty Freaky League.
After a Sports Illustrated investigative report Sunday exposed Richardson's disturbing history of sexual harassment and racist remarks, he announced that he would sell the team at season's end. He avoids the indignity of making the NFL remove him in a more forceful manner. He'll be punished by making ridiculous money off his ridiculous misconduct.
Congratulations, Jerry Richardson. You have helped to redefine the term "filthy rich."
If the NFL is wise, it will use this embarrassment as an opportunity to take a long look at itself. Stare into the mirror just once, and the league will see one priority it must have as it assists Richardson in vetting and seeking potential buyers.
This is a good time to be proactive and serious about improving the diversity among NFL owners. The NFL has only two nonwhite owners, including Jacksonville's Shahid Khan, who was born in Pakistan. There are a few female owners: Kim Pegula (born in South Korea) runs the Buffalo Bills with her husband, Terry; in Tampa, the Glazer family includes Darcie Glazer Kassewitz; Al Davis left control of the Raiders to his widow, Carol, and son, Mark; Virginia Halas McCaskey is the 94-year-old principal owner of the Chicago Bears; Amy Adams Strunk controls the Tennessee Titans; and Martha Firestone Ford, 92, took over the Detroit Lions after her husband died three years ago. But most of those six women are advanced in age or playing smaller roles. Strunk is the lone primary decision-maker.
The call for diversifying NFL ownership isn't just a nice thought to turn scandal into perceived progress. The NFL needs a fresh face, fresh voice and fresh perspective more than it realizes. Think about the protest debacle. Kaepernick started kneeling during the anthem in 2016. It took more than a year for the owners to sit down with a group of players and understand their concerns about racial injustice and police brutality. And who was one of the most influential owners in brokering meaningful discussion? San Francisco 49ers chief executive officer Jed York, who is 37 and thinking differently than his colleagues.
Compare the NFL to the NBA, another largely African American league, and it's humiliating how old, white and out of touch the NFL looks. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver never had trouble understanding the societal issues that bothered his players, and NBA owners haven't had major struggles supporting their players. As a result, the players haven't felt the need to challenge the NBA's hard-line policy about conduct during the anthem.
It's not just about protests, though. The NFL is showing signs of trouble in many areas, from on-field quality to player discipline to rule book issues to player safety. It's most worrisome that the league can't see some of these problems coming or, even worse, it's unconcerned. There are too many good ol' boys who have made insane money doing things a certain way, and they don't want to change, and they cannot be reasoned with unless they aren't guaranteed to make more money than the previous year. And even when they're forced to do something different, they do so with questionable intentions, and they're only interested in short-term solutions.
For a league full of people who have made billions by taking risks and thinking strategically, there is little vision in the NFL. Owners just want this to keep being the easiest lucrative investment they've ever made.
Would the first African American owner change that? Maybe, maybe not. Would having a woman acquire immense power among the owners change anything? Maybe, maybe not. There's no requirement that a minority owner must have a greater conscience or radical ideas. But there's much potential attached to diversifying perspectives.
The NFL also has quite a few aging owners like the 81-year-old Richardson. Those families aren't guaranteed to remain in the football business. It's possible that six to eight franchises could change ownership over the next dozen years. If so, some of the league's priorities and values could shift significantly.
Ownership diversity is a complicated pursuit because only the wealthiest of the wealthy can afford NFL franchises, and not many minorities have that kind of money. Forbes valued the Panthers at $2.3 billion in September, ranking it the league's 21st-most valuable franchise. Most actual sales exceed Forbes's valuation. Richardson owns about 48 percent of the team, which makes his stake worth at least $1.1 billion.
Hip-hop mogul Diddy has expressed his interest. Kaepernick and NBA star Stephen Curry, who grew up in Charlotte, were enthusiastic about joining that group. But Diddy, whose net worth is estimated to be in the $800 million range, would have to join forces with a whale. NFL rules stipulate that a controlling owner must have a stake of at least 30 percent. If the Panthers sell for $2.3 billion, the requirement for the controlling owner would be about $700 million. And, again, the deal likely would be more costly.
Progress doesn't have to be confined to principal ownership. If there are opportunities to sell minority stakes in the Panthers or any other franchise, the NFL should work more diligently than it ever has to encourage diversity there, too. One symbol of change at the top is powerful, but it's also often ineffectual. The NFL doesn't need an aberration. It needs sustainable diversity at every level of every franchise.
Something positive can come from the Richardson fiasco. Richardson had good moments as the owner who brought the NFL to Charlotte in 1993, but it won't be hard to do better. The next owner needs only to be decent enough to not have "Jeans Day" to ogle female employees.
But instead of doing better, how about the NFL get this right? How about working hard to create the most diverse list possible of outstanding owner candidates?
The NFL needs it. The league can't start to reinvent itself with old, white, out-of-touch and stubborn men having all the influence.