The importance of NFL ownership in sports negotiations

Recent cases involving veteran NFL players have reinforced to me the importance of NFL ownership.  Proprietary control of a professional football franchise is an elite club and one that many successful businessmen and women have aspired to.  Only a small number ever get the opportunity to own an NFL franchise.  Membership has been garnered through a number of avenues.

Membership required

Some teams have been handed down through generations as with the Rooney’s in Pittsburgh, the Mara’s in New York, and the Brown’s in Cincinnati.  Others were acquired through pioneering vision as with Ralph Wilson in Buffalo and Bud Adams in Tennessee (Houston).  Still others were outright purchased for millions, if not a billion dollars.  Stephen Ross in Miami, Shad Khan in Jacksonville and Jim Haslam in Cleveland are recent buyers that come to mind.

Whether inherited, founded, or paid for, there comes with the association of NFL ownership a certain responsibility that is not always accepted.  Many owners ascribe to the philosophy of a “hands off” approach to overseeing their clubs.  Football and its administration are left to those who know the game, and the games within the game.  The media is quick to jump on the meddlesome owner if they think his actions are hindering the success of the team.  Look at the grief Jerry Jones and the late Al Davis have taken for their “hands on” approach to  the management of their organizations.

There are others who are praised for their skillful guidance and direction in the wake of success.  Robert Kraft in New England, Arthur Blank in Atlanta, and Steve Bisciotti are some good examples.  These owners are lauded for their ability to mix business acumen with a keen understanding for the intricacies of a complicated sport.

But where is the point when “too much” is “not enough”?

Monster of the Midway

Brian Urlacher was selected in the first round of the 2000 NFL Draft with the ninth overall pick by the Chicago Bears.  For thirteen seasons he helped anchor the Bears defense and was awarded 8 Pro Bowls and 5 All-Pro selections.  He gained NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2000 and was awarded NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2005 when Chicago made their Super Bowl XL run.  His tenacious physical play and outstanding athletic ability help redefine the middle linebacker position.

Injuries and age have slowed the former New Mexico Lobo, and the Chicago Bears have been faced with a difficult situation over the course of the free agent period the past few weeks.

Doom

Elvis Dumervil was an unheralded fourth round selection by the Denver Broncos in 2006.  The undersized defensive end from Louisville had been compared to former Indianapolis Colt Dwight Freeney in his physical build and style of play.  Dumervil proved to be a solid pass rusher his first three seasons but flourished under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s 3-4 scheme in 2009 when he led the League in sacks with 17.  His explosive production led then head coach Josh McDaniels to extend his contract another six years and $61.5 million.  The loyal and compliant Dumervil became one of the Broncos highest paid players.

The emergence of the young defensive star Von Miller and the addition of many high profile free agent acquisitions under the John Elway/John Fox regime caused the Denver front office to reassess the value of Dumervil’s contract after the 2012 NFL season.

“What the hell’s going on out here?”

Now both situations have gotten ugly and ownership is nowhere to be found.  Urlacher, perhaps the face of the Bears franchise over the past decade, was asked to take a one year contract offer he deemed “insulting”.  Dumervil learned that he was being asked to take a 25% salary reduction through the media, then literally last minute procedural SNAFU’s forced Denver to release their star defensive end.  The story made for embarrassing national headlines.

Both scenarios could have and should have been handled with more respect due to the status of both players.  Coaches and front office executives frequently get caught up in the emotional aspects of the business/football decisions.  As with any aspect of public or private life, many times the easiest way to handle a difficult situation is just to not address it all.  But “franchise level” players deserve better.

Here’s where ownership has the responsibility to step in and guide the process of dealing with a difficult release or uncomfortable restructure.  Ultimately players, coaches and staff all work directly for ownership, and the manner in which they go about their business is directly reflective of the leadership bestowed by this elite group of individuals.

Where was it in Chicago and Denver?

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