Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, has made no secret to fellow owners, players, fans, and the general public that he is displeased with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. About two weeks ago, Jones threatened to sue the league if Goodell’s contract is extended. In response, fellow owners sent a letter to Jones, scolding him for “antics” that reflected “conduct detrimental to the league’s best interests.” The owners’ language signals to Jones that they may be willing to impose sanctions if his behavior were to continue. Possible sanctions could include fines, loss of draft picks, or even suspending Jones. Although suspension is rare in professional sports, it previously has happened in MLB (Marge Schott, George Steinbrenner) and the NBA (Donald Sterling). Of course, Goodell would be the one imposing the punishment, which he likely would be hesitant to do without strong support from other owners.
In May, Jones and the other owners voted unanimously to authorize the Compensation Committee – chaired by Arthur Blank of the Falcons and including ownership from the Chiefs, Giants, Patriots, Steelers, and Texans – to finalize a contract extension with Goodell. Since the Compensation Committee was set with its voting members, Jones also was invited by Blank to join as a non-voting member. Since then, Jones’s star running back Ezekiel Elliott has been suspended, the players’ anthem protest has continued, and Jones has accused Blank of providing misleading statements to the owners about the status of negotiations.
Jones has not indicated what lawsuit he would file, but possible causes of action might include: breach of contract; breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing; breach of fiduciary duty; fraud and unfair business practices; illegal cartel under antitrust law; or, illegal interference. Certainly, the merits of any such lawsuit would be contested by the league. If Jones were to refrain from suing the NFL, he may have another option to challenge Goodell’s leadership. He could seek a vote of no confidence from the league’s owners. Although such a vote has no legal effect, it would signal to Goodell that he does not have the owners’ support and he may step down. Of course, if Jones were to orchestrate such a vote and it were to not pass, Jones himself would lose influence in the league.
Ian Ferrell is a Sports Highlight Contributor for the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law and a current first year student at Harvard Law School (Class of 2020).