NFL commissioner Roger Goodell speaks at his invitation-only news conference on Monday.Photo: Matt York/AP
A month before the NFL’s Super Bowl in Las Vegas, a different kind of high-stakes football contest unfolded in the Nevada Supreme Court. That’s where the league was called upon to defend itself in a lawsuit from Jon Gruden – the disgraced NFL coach who resigned from the Raiders after being exposed for sending racist, sexist and homophobic e-mails for nearly ten years while employed by ESPN. The revelation cost Gruden more than half of the balance of his $100m Raiders contract, the league’s highest coaching salary at the time, and the coach has long maintained that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell conspired to make him a pariah in the sport.
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The Super Bowl is as much a celebration of the NFL as it is a stamp of its hold on the national zeitgeist and growing influence abroad. (On Friday, the league announced that it will play its first regular-season game in Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium.) But a flurry of recent lawsuits threatens to shatter the league’s aura of invincibility. No doubt for some, the litigation is evidence of a successful enterprise (from Microsoft to Trump Inc), part and parcel of a larger money game. Additionally, the NFL product has proven to be effective in distracting fans from alleged actions. Before they know what hit them, the league’s nuclear-grade legal team has swept the matter under the rug or thrown it at the opposition. It’s a playbook that has carried the league for over 50 years. And yet one cannot but think that this Goliath is not to be expected from a buckler.
In his invite-only position at the league’s news conference Monday, Goodell was pleased to see four coaches of color hired this season, raising the total to nine — an NFL record. But challenges to Goodell’s diversity record remain as high as ever. He still hasn’t dealt with Brian Flores, the former head coach of the Miami Dolphins — who filed a class-action lawsuit against the league in 2022 accusing the NFL of systemic racial discrimination in collusion with a handful of teams. Steve Wilks, the former coach behind San Francisco’s Super Bowl defense, joined the lawsuit in solidarity with Flores – who found work as Minnesota’s defensive coordinator despite his legal action, which the NFL is trying to enforce again in arbitration.
Goodell didn’t really have a solution to the lack of diversity in NFL Media’s own newsroom either — a perennial concern of Hall of Fame football writer Jim Trotter, who is suing the league for essentially firing him for pursuing the issue raise this. Trotter is not covering the big game this year, so it was up to Kansas City radio reporter Darren Smith to do the honors. In posting his question, Smith also shared that longtime series television producer Larry Campbell died over the weekend, leaving NFL Media without any full-time Black employees in its newsroom. “I will tell you that 51% of our employees across the league, across the network, across all of our media platforms, not including players, are people of color or women,” the commissioner said, unchanged. “The first time ever. So progress is being made.”
Responding to the exchange in a post on X (formerly Twitter), Trotter wrote that Goodell either “doesn’t care or doesn’t want to know.”
This month will also mark one year since 10 former players sued the Commissioner and the league’s disability plan. Among other things, the lawsuit accuses the league, which agreed to a significant concussion settlement in 2015, of systematically denying benefits, misinterpreting and falsifying medical exam results and plan guidelines. According to a recent Washington Post exposé, the tactics may save the series more than $700m in payouts. While the league has paid out more than $1.2bn in disability claims, it is also suing in hopes of reimbursement from its insurers, which argue that 40% of the 1,663 former players who received payments may have been overstated or even feigned their signs.
But the lawsuit that could hurt the league the most is Gruden. Since the 2021 filing, the league has worked overtime to throw out the case, asserting that Gruden’s coaching contract was only entitled to resolve this issue through arbitration. Gruden countered that he did not know his employment agreement with the Raiders required him to abide by the league’s constitution and its provisions, including arbitration. Linda Marie Bell, one of three judges who heard these arguments in January, didn’t necessarily buy that given Gruden’s long and nepotistic pro football pedigree — but she also didn’t buy the idea that Goodell was impartial enough to lead. on the allegations against him. him, or get another impartial judge to recuse himself.
The judges are expected to issue an opinion in the coming months. It’s worth noting that Gruden isn’t ready to recoup lost wages; he wants all of the league’s internal communications to be released in discovery and to reveal how the league really does its business. He wants to burn down Goodell’s house.
And yet: you can see how the NFL could try to shrug off this big slip as another series of court battles along the corridor of power. After all, the law is about how the league took on its competition and cornered the media and merchandising market on the way to becoming a cultural colossus. But no winning streak lasts forever. The question is not when the NFL will lose a big case, but how badly.