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NFL

Cool League You’ve Got There

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - JANUARY 22: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell walks on the field before the start of the AFC Divisional Playoff game between the Tennessee Titans and Cincinnati Bengals at Nissan Stadium on January 22, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

It’s been quite the Super Bowl Fortnight so far, if you remember that the National Football League exists mostly for owner attention, preservation, and enrichment. And so far, every story leads back to an embarrassment.

But today’s offerings—the first media dissections of Brian Flores’s lawsuit/fragmentation grenade against the NFL and the naming of the Washington Commanders—are all about ownership, and how the NFL’s billionaire hiring hall is doing miserable work. Flores took aim at several ownership operations, including the Miami Dolphins, Denver Broncos, and New York Giants, and went so far as to nominate Miami’s Stevie Ross as the new worst owner in sports, temporarily surpassing our pal Danny Snyder in Washington. That is, if you believe that racial discrimination and active bribes to encourage game-fixing and willful tampering is worse than racial exploitation and persistently sexually degrading women in your organization, and we will leave that depressing discussion for a slow news day.

The fact is, most owners are too cheap to pay loss bounties, which means that if Ross isn’t worse than Snyder, he is at least the first owner to brazenly apply the lessons first taught us by Anita McCambridge in Slap Shot, Rachel Phelps in Major League, or more recently, Rebecca Weldon in Ted Lasso. That raises the notion that film and TV writers believe women are more actively imagined as game-fixers than men, which sounds like a topic of its own.

(As an aside, I’m not using the word “allegedly” here not only because I believe every example of an owner being a lousy human being is true, but because I play the percentages and bet low-priced favorites. It’s not the quick route to wealth, but it also isn’t the quick route to bankruptcy either.)

Anyway, Ross made all the owners stars in the latest and greatest exposure of the Rooney Rule as a complete and utterly toothless sham made even worse by the owners’ disinterest in hiding their boys’ club hiring practices. Frankly, if Bill Belichick actually meant to send that congratulatory text to Flores rather than just geezering his phone, he truly is the most brilliant tactician in sports history.

The blanket condemnation of the owners and their brazen dismissals of the only avenue to diverse hiring the league has ever applied to its football operations aside, let’s take a quick tour of the league to see how many of the 32 owners have managed to become figures of attention since New Year’s Day, with extra credit for doing stuff this week, in the first three days of the industry’s biggest trade show. And remember, every coaching hire is an owner’s decision, just as every coach that isn’t hired is an owner’s decision too.

Arizona: Mikey Bidwill is credited with being angry with head coach Kliff Kingsbury after the beating by the Rams for not escaping the gravitational pull of Cardinaldom. Not much, really.

Chicago: The McCaskeys changed their entire football operations department, with the great likelihood that they’ll be doing it again in three years.

Cincinnati: Your feel-good story, in that perennial failson and historical quarter-choker Mike Brown has finally spent and hired effectively and gotten to the Big’Un for the first time ever (his dad Paul ran the operation back in ’88, the last time the Bengals got to the final). The real credit goes to others but the absence of blame for Mikey is a nice consolation.

Dallas: Give it an hour. Jerry Jones will say something incomprehensibly bombastic, probably in support of office manager Roger Goodell, who may retire just to avoid the continued stress that comes from trying to steer his 32 bosses from situations that end with them dropping their trousers in a crowded ballroom. It would appear in fact that a growing number of them actually don’t mind their trousers at half mast.

Denver: Part and parcel of the Flores story, and also about to be sold at 50 times the price Pat Bowlen paid for it back in 1984. John Elway is expected to still be involved, or at least more noticeably than he apparently was at the Flores interview.

Houston: Still on the verge of hiring the spectacularly unqualified Josh McCown as its new head coach, thereby replacing the Rooney Rule with the McNair Rule, which is “Qualifications begin with church attendance.”

Las Vegas: Josh McDaniels. 

Los Angeles Rams: Stan Kroenke trying to screw his fellow owners in the St. Louis lawsuit is last year’s news, so he has the ownership dream scenario of having one team and one stadium in the Super Bowl. He deserves neither.

Miami: You can fill this space with the next degradation to come down the internet boulevard. Ross is the new turd standard, and where there’s odor, there’s usually more compost.

Minnesota: Jim Harbaugh. See Las Vegas.

New England: Belichick tips off Flores. Josh McDaniels gets the Raiders job. Bob Kraft gets snubbed by Tom Brady. A typical week for your standard local politburo.

New Orleans: Was supposed to be Flores’ next job interview. Gayle Benson has probably moved on to the candidate she was going to hire anyway.

New York Giants: John Mara is in this Flores thing up to his jawline, but he’d still rather be himself than Ross. “WE’RE NUMBER 30!”

Tampa Bay: Awaiting news of a tampering violation re: Brady in response to Miami’s tampering of Brady. Nothing yet, but it’s 11 days to kickoff, so we have time.

Washington: Whatever your opinion of Commanders (and your opinion is feh because that’s the one I have assigned you), remember why it was made necessary. Snyder may currently only be the silver medalist in the Worst Owner competition, but his greatness in this category over the decades can never be minimized. In fact, we can predict Ross’s fate by the measures the league has taken to protect Snyder over the years. They’re the only ones who can do anything to him, and the heavy betting is that they will slather him with praise and condemnation of Flores’s suit while possibly easing Ross toward a gentle and lucrative sale and retirement if the lawsuit wreaks sufficient damage to the firm.

This leaves Atlanta, Baltimore, Buffalo, Carolina, Cleveland, Detroit, Green Bay, Indianapolis, Jacksonville (amazingly), Kansas City, the Los Angeles Chargers, the New York Jets, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Seattle and Tennessee if you think there are bingo possibilities here. This is, if nothing else, the greatest bury-the-story challenge the NFL has had since the Colin Kaepernick blackballing, and it’s going to take more than Brady’s retirement to move this one. ESPN didn’t move Commanders to the top of its queue this morning, just to name one media entity historically beholden to the league.

But as we say, it’s only First Wednesday, and there are many cards the NFL can and will play to obscure the Flores story. The NFL is good at this sort of thing. This, frankly, looks like a job for Aaron Rodgers, and not just any old Aaron Rodgers but Aaron Rodgers doing something so big that it can’t be left to Pat McAfee. In the meantime, we have the owners and their venal, bumbling ways guiding us toward a Super Bowl that may seem at kickoff less like a big event and more like a sad mercy.