In March 2013, during the National Football League's annual meeting, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones abruptly cleared the room at the Arizona Biltmore hotel. Something had been bothering Jones for more than a year, and most team executives and league office representatives were sent out; only teams' principal owners and highest-ranking personnel were asked to stay.
"I love Roger," Jones began, according to multiple individuals who remained in the meeting room. He was referring to Roger Goodell, the savvy NFL lifer who 14 months earlier had signed a contract extension to remain NFL commissioner. The five-year, incentive-heavy deal wasn't just a reward for Goodell's role in a collective bargaining agreement owners viewed as a win. It was a windfall that would pay Goodell more than $176 million in salary and bonuses between 2011 and 2015 as league revenue surged to $14 billion annually, its franchise owners grew far richer and the NFL became one of the world's most powerful brands.
But Jones was unhappy — in part because the three-owner compensation committee, which did not include Jones, had approved the deal without much input from the league's other team owners. "We could have gotten him for a lot less," Jones said, according to those who were present. He went on to vow that next time, before Goodell's deal expired in March 2019, things would be different.
Nearly five years after that meeting, Jones is making good on that vow — and then some. With Cowboys star running back Ezekiel Elliott facing a six-game suspension, ordered by Goodell, Jones seems to be returning fire by staging a coup, threatening to sue the league if it extends Goodell's contract.
The revolt exposes rare fissures within the NFL as it continues to be buffeted by controversies that threaten what was once considered an unassailable business model. Protests led by African American players to call attention to social injustice and police brutality have been this season's dominant story line, with President Trump challenging fans to boycott games if players continue kneeling during the national anthem. Sponsors are unhappy, television ratings and stadium attendance figures continue a downward slide, and concerns persist over whether the game is inherently unsafe. And youth participation in football is down.
Anxiety over the effects of concussions was reignited after former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was found to have suffered from the most severe case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy ever discovered in a person his age. CTE is the degenerative disease caused by repetitive brain trauma. Hernandez was convicted of first-degree murder in 2015 and in April hanged himself in his prison cell at the age of 27. Boston University researchers said Thursday the damage to his brain would have significantly affected his decision-making, judgment and cognition.
Goodell's bosses see his job, at its root, as making money for NFL owners and for making problems go away. With festering off-field problems threatening owners' profits, Goodell's effectiveness as commissioner and job security seem to be as tenuous as they have ever been.
During the spring, Jones was one of 32 unanimous votes to proceed with a new contract for Goodell. But that was before the league office handed down its suspension of Elliott, who was accused of domestic violence but never charged. The six-game suspension was affirmed Thursday when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit denied Elliott's preliminary injunction. In the time since, Jones has forced his way onto the league's compensation committee; attempted to lead an uprising of NFL owners to block the new deal or even overthrow Goodell; held a conference call with 16 owners not on the compensation committee to gauge support for dramatic changes to Goodell's next contract; and retained a high-profile attorney who, Jones told fellow owners last week, was prepared to sue the NFL if it proceeded with ratifying a contract extension.
This isn't just Jones taking control of a process that once omitted him and, he believed, overpaid the commissioner. It is perhaps the NFL's most powerful owner questioning the wisdom and intentions of his fellow owners — a declaration of war.
"You don't have to, in football, like what your coach [says] or like what you're doing," Jones, 75, who if he is serious about firing Goodell would need 24 of 32 votes to do so, said last month. "You have to buy into it, though. But you don't necessarily have to like it. As a matter of fact, about 95 percent of anything I've ever done in football was work and, if you will, painful."
Many owners are attempting to wish this away as the flamboyant Jones's latest publicity stunt, or they're rationalizing it as an overreaction to Elliott's suspension, or they're choosing to believe Jones is — as Patriots owner Robert Kraft did during the saga over whether the Patriots tampered with game balls — giving the appearance of anger to pacify Cowboys fans.
"My view is it's mostly a temper tantrum," said one high-ranking official with an NFL team, who among others interviewed for this story requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topics and the threat of litigation.
Jones declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this story.
Though Jones is a reliable showman, he is also a shrewd businessman whose instincts and lack of a filter often force the league to confront difficult topics. In this case, he is exposing faultlines at a time when other owners would prefer to project strength, revealing through his assault on Goodell that the league's foundation isn't as strong as some insist.
For the first time in a generation, the NFL owners' "golden goose," as one insider described it, is in real danger. That's because, this time, the siege isn't coming from the players' union or activist groups or the media. It's coming from inside the league.
"He's out of control," one particularly concerned league official said of Jones. "Wherever Jerry goes, Roger will be fine. But if he keeps undermining the product, it will be the owners to put him in his place. That's the partners. He's hurting the partners; he's not hurting the commissioner."
During the 2011 NFL lockout, months before Goodell's most recent contract extension, the commissioner would storm out of the negotiating room before three of his most trusted allies calmly took over.
Goodell was the bad cop; Jones, Kraft and Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson were the good cops. Goodell, known among friends and colleagues for his stoicism and almost irrational calmness, wasn't just putting on a show. He was being exactly what the league's 32 franchises needed him to be.
"He has very good political skills," one longtime league office colleague said of Goodell, 58, the son of a former United States senator. Goodell, through a league spokesman, declined to be interviewed for this story.
If Jones were disgruntled by anything more than a lucrative deal for Goodell, he rarely showed it. "I just support him," the Cowboys owner told The Washington Post in August 2015, during the height of the Patriots' "Deflategate" standoff with the commissioner. "I support him completely."
Years earlier, Goodell and Jones forged an alliance when Goodell — at the time a young executive in the league office — listened to Jones, who believed licensing and sponsorship revenue should be retained by individual teams rather than distributed among the franchises through the league. In time, the league changed its sponsorship model, with Goodell backing Jones's position.
"He said: 'We should think about this,' " the longtime colleague said of Goodell. "It raised everybody's boat."
And none more than Jones's, who bought the Cowboys for $140 million in 1989 and whose team Forbes now values at $4.8 billion. Jones was among eight owners who, in 2006, selected Goodell to succeed Paul Tagliabue as commissioner. In some ways, Jones and Goodell hadn't just risen to power together; they had done so because of each other.
Goodell has valued the opinions of some owners more than others — Jones, Kraft, Richardson, the New York Giants' John Mara and Pittsburgh's Rooney family have been powerful voices during his tenure, along with Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank and the Houston Texans' Robert McNair. But he has also tried to signal that he shows no favoritism.
Eight weeks after Goodell's promotion, he fined Dan Rooney for criticizing game officials. He docked Jones's Cowboys $10 million in salary cap space for violating league rules during the 2010 season. He refused to let up on his sanctions against Kraft's Patriots during Deflategate, which eventually reached the U.S. Court of Appeals. And Goodell fined the Falcons, docked them a draft pick and suspended team president Rich McKay, Blank's top lieutenant, from the league's competition committee.
If the owners felt jilted, most seemed to understand Goodell's subtle message. "The other 32 [owners] look at it," a longtime league insider said, "and they say two things. First: 'Look at this.' And second: 'I hope it never happens to me.' "
One, though, seemed to never get over a perceived betrayal.
"With Jerry, he'll talk a good game and do what he needs to do," said one individual familiar with the thinking of a franchise owner. "But when it's about him, you'd better kowtow to him and understand that he's different."
At a league meeting in New York last month, Blank was talking about Goodell's contract when Jones's name came up.
A few months earlier, Jones had talked Blank into adding him to the compensation committee, which since Goodell's previous contract has grown to six owners, as an unofficial seventh member. Jones insisted to Blank, the committee's chairman, that his voice would represent the league's other franchises.
Though it pacified Jones for a while, it did little but spread confusion and resentment among owners. Blank was explaining Jones's role when Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, perhaps Jones's most trusted fellow owner, interrupted. "But does he have a vote?" Snyder asked, according to individuals in the room.
Irregular as it was, Blank said he had granted Jones a vote. Then the Cowboys owner spoke up. "Well, I'm not sure I want it," he said, and to some of the owners this was Jones being Jones: provocative, unpredictable and maybe a little petulant — chaos and division in a league whose owners more than ever crave peace and unity.
But Jones isn't known for going quietly.
"He's got to be careful now. He's taking it too far for some of the owners," said one person familiar with league dealings, and sure enough, a few weeks later Jones was told his participation on the committee was no longer required.
"The whole room is kind of sick of listening to him," said one league official who frequently attends owners' meetings. "He talks more than he's ever talked. I don't know what he's doing right now."
Some owners wonder if Jones is being deliberately obstinate. While many teams and the league office have walked a fine line during the player protests, Jones has taken a notably extreme position. He threatened to bench any player for "disrespecting" the flag by kneeling during the national anthem, a maneuver that drew praise from Trump and further raised the temperature on an issue Goodell and the league were trying to de-escalate.
Jones's reaction is in noticeable contrast to Kraft, who never allowed his frustration with Goodell and the league office over Deflategate to affect NFL business. Jones has shown no such restraint, and his colleagues are left to speculate about his motivations.
"Once the suspension happened with Ezekiel Elliott, Jerry changed," said an NFL source familiar with the league's inner workings. "He has been disruptive since that point in time."
Another influential league figure described Jones's behavior more starkly.
"He's just out of control," the person said.
In about a month, owners will gather in suburban Dallas — Jones's back yard — for another meeting. Goodell will be expected there, and a showdown awaits between old friends.
At the meeting, it is believed, Goodell's new contract extension could be ratified. League insiders believe that, for all of Jones's bravado, he ultimately will support Goodell for one prevailing reason: money, which this commissioner happens to be good at generating.
"The last [collective bargaining agreement] was good for the owners. Let's say that was worth $10 billion to the good for them. That lasts a long time," a longtime league insider said. "Who do you want doing the next CBA and the next TV deals? You want Roger."
For now, according to several people who are in regular contact with Goodell, the commissioner has remained his usual stoic self. If Jones's siege is getting to Goodell, he hasn't shown it, and the man who basks in fans' boos each year during the NFL draft is taking a similar approach with a former ally who is now a formidable opponent.
"Roger has been exactly Roger. Through this whole thing, he's been the exact same guy," said one individual who interacts with Goodell.
But a month is a long time to maintain composure when Jerry Jones is upset and motivated — even if it's at the expense of fellow owners, the commissioner and the league. Confrontation, more than business and even football, seems to be Jones's preferred pastime, and no matter the history with this opponent, he has shown no hint of letting up.
"My best things that I've been involved in," Jones said recently, "were born of angst."