Leaked Jon Gruden emails showcase PR danger for the NFL in its potential billion dollar St. Louis lawsuit
The NFL is going to court. What happens next is a guess.
This litigation is not a breaking news. We have known since the beginning of September that the league has unsuccessfully exhausted all possibilities to throw the lawsuit for relocation of the Rams out of court. Despite millions of dollars in billable hours and the best white shoe lawyers money can buy, the NFL's worst litigation since the 1986 USFL antitrust lawsuit continues.
But there was a moment this week worth pondering when the email exchange between Jon Gruden and former Washington Football team manager Bruce Allen reminded us of how much the league dominates investigative narratives. Maybe even to the point of deciding who will be protected and who will be sacrificed. This should give cause for concern where the reality of control lies in the St. Louis lawsuit.
Before you link the events surrounding Gruden to future NFL litigation, here's what to do in this Rams relocation lawsuit.
Rams owner Stan Kroenke is a key figure in litigation between the City of St. Louis and the NFL. (REUTERS / Lucy Nicholson)
5 NFL team owners fight in St. Louis
For those who didn't go through, this litigation is not going well for the league. And it definitely doesn't look like what will end up like the 1986 antitrust lawsuit that ultimately resulted in only $ 3.76 in damages, largely because a jury thought team owner Donald Trump and the USFL were doing more harm to themselves inflicted more than the NFL ever did. No, this Rams suit is a whole different set of storm clouds that are much more likely to cause a $ 376 million check to be cut than $ 3.76. In fact, the league could expect billions in damage to their hands.
Because of this, NFL attorneys went on last month during an investigation into the net worth of five franchisees who were most influential in relocating the Rams: the Rams' Stan Kroenke; Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys; Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots; John Mara of the New York Giants; and Clark Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs. Kroenke will be the only person on the hook for the final review, but the net worths and franchise values of these other owners could materially affect a damages verdict should the NFL lose this case.
The result was St. Louis attorneys complaining that all five team owners were having trouble opening their books. And not just the books that affect their teams, but their finances for all of their businesses. And when I say they defy a court order, at this point they do so to the point of contempt with arguments that have become so ridiculous that the Giants' Mara had an NFL attorney argue on Wednesday that Mara doesn't know or understand what their franchise is really worth.
Forbes can get this number annually, but Mara is apparently clueless and confused about it.
The NFL doesn't want the trial to take place in St. Louis because it essentially knows that a jury in that city was likely poisoned against the league. It also doesn't want the same jury to rule on the league's guilt or innocence and the financial damage, likely because a jury found guilty of screwing up the city of St. Louis with a move would also very likely be horrifyingly awarded Damage.
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The NFL will have no control over Jon Gruden and WFT affairs
When it comes to potential franchise move precedents, everything is interesting, even though it may be too little for fans in daily legal maneuvers. But there's a part of that court battle that's very easy to understand for fans as well this week: That the league has almost always had the fight under control when it comes to investigative narratives, the discovery process and what comes to light. It has the power to do what it wants.
So much was seen during the Washington Football Team's workplace investigation that summer. The investigation came and went with a $ 10 million fine from Dan Snyder and virtually no details about what happened to the club owner or any of his staff. There was no written report. And apart from the fine, almost nothing was officially known about what kind of sanctions Snyder was facing from the league. Even the discovery was almost completely shielded - until Gruden and Allen's emails surfaced last week, showing some of the less tasty things people will say if they assume no one will ever see them.
The NFL certainly doesn't seem angry with the publication of these emails, although like the 650,000 others that have been screened by the Washington franchise, these messages should be screened. Nor does it say what else might have been on these servers - or who else might be involved in a similar way to Gruden or Allen. Despite renewed calls for full transparency, the league has made it clear that this will never happen.
Some people will remain protected. Some people won't. And the league will retain its ability to exercise power over narrative and secrecy. At least until this whole St. Louis litigation gets into a courtroom. Then it all goes out the door.
This is what makes this situation so conspicuous with the Rams. It has grown into a legal battle where the NFL cannot control the discovery process - nor the narrative of what happens when a lawsuit begins. If this lawsuit continues in Missouri, there is no telling what will be unearthed. Maybe it will be something like the unsavory things that have already come to light. Just as Rams employees refer to an allegedly heartfelt farewell letter to the city of St. Louis as an "AMF" letter. AMF is an acronym for "Adios Mother F ******". Or the discovery that Chief Operating Officer Kevin Demoff forwarded articles to the league office in 2015 that highlighted St. Louis' homicide rate and creditworthiness.
Now combine this type of discovery damage with a wave of lawsuits in which Kroenke has to take a witness stand and ask questions. And behind him stand Jones, Kraft, Mara, Hunt and even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for his turn under oath, all sitting on a witness stand preparing to answer who knows what. Do you remember all of the high-priced lawyers the NFL pays for? Well, this is where the hired legal lawnmowers start walking over hand grenades they didn't know existed.
And so, there is a very good chance that a mind-boggling settlement check will be written to remove all of this before a jury can sit down and consider what is being drawn behind the NFL's veil of secrecy.
If this week has taught us anything, it is that there is a lot of discomfort on the other side of the NFL about losing power over processes and information. For this very reason, the NFL must feel that it cannot face this process in St. Louis. It is not an investigation that can be buried. It is not a series of exploratory questions on this stand that can be ignored.
And perhaps most importantly, it won't be a rush of media attention that will be wiped out by a total suffocation of information. No, this would be the league's laundry - business, personal and financial - that would be visible to everyone. This is the kind of theater the NFL can't control and it's not ignored. And it will be the center of the football universe when the curtain rises in a courtroom next year.
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