The silence at the other end of the phone line was telling. The owner of one NFL team, a wealthy man generally not afraid to speak his mind, took a long, deep breath when asked about an issue that cut truly to the heart of the league.
What would the NFL be like without the Rooney Family running the Pittsburgh Steelers? Specifically, what would happen if Dan Rooney, the affable elder statesman, were no longer a significant part of the league?
"I don't really want to get into this," the owner said before demanding anonymity. The request was made with a joking threat of physical harm.
At least it sounded like a joke.
"It's really hard for me to imagine the NFL without Dan Rooney and his family running the Pittsburgh Steelers," the owner said. "Obviously, a lot of what I'm saying has to do with tradition, legacy and a lot of that sentimental stuff that all you guys in the media think we don't give a (darn) about … but it's really more than that.
"I ran companies before I got to the NFL and really good, well-run companies – and the NFL is a really good, well-run company – have people throughout the company who care deeply about the company … Yes, they are emotionally invested and Dan Rooney is emotionally invested in this league. He wants to make money. We all do. But there's a way you make money and show your customers that you care. Dan knows how to do that.
"Yes, he's our moral compass. That's a fair way to put it."
Yet, this proud and accomplished franchise could soon be headed in a different direction.
Financial wizard Stanley Druckenmiller has made an effort to buy controlling interest in the team. Druckenmiller, who is worth an estimated $3.5 billion, has offered to buy out the other four Rooney brothers. Each of the five brothers owns 16 percent of the team (the final 20 percent is owned by another set of relatives).
Druckenmiller, a Steelers fan who started his career in Pittsburgh and lived in the city for 30 years, would own 64 percent of the team if he succeeds. According to published reports in Pittsburgh, he has offered $640 million to the four brothers who are willing to sell and who have hired a firm to represent them.
If that were to happen, the Rooneys would no longer be the majority owners after 75 years. The team was founded in 1933 by family patriarch Art Rooney Sr. Art Sr. and son Dan are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as contributors to the league. Dan Rooney is also considered one of the league's great consensus builders, a peacemaker among ultra-competitive rich men because of his understated and folksy approach.
"Dan Rooney is arguably the most beloved and respected owner in the NFL today with tremendous loyalties built up over many years," said Marc Ganis, the president of Sportscorp Limited, a sports business consulting firm. "There's no chance in the world they will throw him overboard if he can find a way to make this work."
Under its rules, the NFL can continue to have Dan be the controlling owner of the team as long as it wants, according to Ganis, who has done projects with more than a third of the NFL's 32 teams.
"Think of the NFL as a New York co-op," Ganis said, comparing the league to the housing cooperatives throughout metropolitan New York. "Someone with incredible wealth can try to come in and buy their way into a co-op and you, as the seller, may want to sell to them. But if the board of that co-op association doesn't want you in that association, you don't get it.
"The NFL has that kind of power and more to approve whoever they want to be the controlling owner of a team."
Realistically, in order for Dan Rooney to hold off Druckenmiller or any other investor, he'll need an influx of cash. Dan Rooney has reportedly been looking for investors in recent weeks to come up with enough money to become majority owner and pay off his brothers, who want to cash out.
Dan Rooney declined to talk about the issue two weeks ago, but he and his brothers met with commissioner Roger Goodell, Cincinnati owner Mike Brown, New Orleans owner Tom Benson and Carolina owner Jerry Richardson in New York last week to discuss the matter. While no solution was announced, Goodell said that it was emphasized to the brothers that any sale was subject to approval by three-fourths of the owners.
"They've run a model franchise, and I think everyone in Pittsburgh recognizes how proud they are of the Steelers, and we in the NFL recognize how fortunate we have been to have Dan Rooney's leadership and now Art's leadership," Goodell said after the 2½-hour meeting.
Goodell emphasized that the league's owners would prefer that Dan Rooney, whose net worth hasn't been revealed, stay in charge of the Steelers. That preference could be enough to sway the brothers to sell their interests to Dan at a less price, hoping to avoid challenges from the league.
Still, as the one owner said, this is not an easy transaction.
"We're talking about a lot money that has to change hands and that Dan has to come up with at the end of the day to keep his brothers happy," the one owner said. "You'd like to think it should be able to happen, but this is the fight that the old guard keeps having."
In other words, for all the riches that men such as Rooney, the late Lamar Hunt and others were able to get from their association with the NFL, staying in the game has become costly.
- Dan Rooney