Leaked Jon Gruden emails showcase PR danger for the NFL in its potential billion dollar St. Louis lawsuit

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·NFL columnist
·7 min read
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The NFL is going to court. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

This litigation isn’t breaking news. We’ve known since early September that the league unsuccessfully exhausted every avenue to get the Rams relocation lawsuit tossed out of court. Despite what will eventually be millions of dollars in billable hours and the very best white shoe attorneys that money can buy, the NFL’s most serious legal battle since the 1986 USFL antitrust suit rolls on.

But there was a moment worthy of reflection this week when the leaking of email exchanges between Jon Gruden and former Washington Football Team executive Bruce Allen reminded us how much the league dominates investigative narratives. Maybe even to the point of choosing who gets protected and who gets sacrificed. That should raise concern where the realities of control lie in the St. Louis lawsuit.

Before tying the events surrounding Gruden to future NFL litigation, here's what is taking place in this Rams relocation suit. 

Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke speaks at a celebration to welcome NFL team, the Los Angeles Rams, at the Forum in Inglewood, Los Angeles, California, United States, January 15, 2016. The St. Louis Rams are moving to Los Angeles after National Football League owners voted to approve their relocation efforts on Tuesday and gave the San Diego Chargers the option to join them. The Rams' proposal to relocate to a planned $1.85 billion facility in Inglewood, roughly 10 miles from downtown Los Angeles, was approved by owners by a vote of 30-2 according to a report on the NFL's website. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Rams owner Stan Kroenke is a key figure in litigation involving the city of St. Louis and the NFL. (REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

5 NFL team owners in St. Louis fight 

For those who haven’t been following along, this legal fight isn’t going well for the league. And it’s most definitely not looking like something that will pan out like the 1986 antitrust lawsuit, which ultimately culminated in only $3.76 in damages, largely because a jury felt team owner Donald Trump and the USFL did more damage to itself than the NFL ever did. No, this Rams suit is a whole different set of thunderheads rolling in, the kind that is far more likely to result in a $376 million check being cut than $3.76. Actually, the league could be looking at billion-dollar damages on its hands.

That’s why there has been no end to legal jousting and foot-dragging from the NFL’s attorneys over the past month during a discovery process that is seeking to determine the net worth of five franchise owners who were most influential in the Rams relocation: the Rams’ Stan Kroenke; the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones; the New England Patriots’ Robert Kraft; the New York Giants’ John Mara; and the Kansas City Chiefs’ Clark Hunt. Kroenke will be the only one on the hook for the final check, but the net worths and franchise values of those other owners could significantly impact a judgment of damages should the NFL lose this case.

The result has been attorneys for St. Louis complaining that all five of the team owners are being difficult about opening their books. And not just the books pertaining to their teams, but their finances for all of their business. And when I say they’re defying a court order, they’re doing it to the point of contempt at this stage with arguments that have become so ridiculous that the Giants' Mara had an NFL lawyer argue Wednesday that Mara doesn’t know or understand what his franchise is actually worth.

Forbes annually can come up with that number, but Mara is apparently clueless and confused about all of it.

The NFL doesn’t want the trial to take place in St. Louis because it essentially knows a jury in that town has likely been poisoned against the league. It also doesn’t want the same jury to decide the guilt or innocence of the league and the financial damages probably because a jury finding the NFL guilty of screwing over the city of St. Louis with a relocation would also be very likely to award staggering damages.

NFL won't have control like it does over Jon Gruden and WFT affairs 

In terms of potential precedents set in franchise relocation, it’s all interesting even if it might be too in the weeds for fans when it comes to the daily legal maneuvers. But there’s a part of this court battle that is also very easy for fans to understand this week: That when it comes to investigative narratives, the discovery process and what hits the light of day, the league has almost always been in control of the fight. It wields the power to do what it pleases. 

That much was on display over the summer during the Washington Football Team’s workplace investigation. The probe came and went with a $10 million Dan Snyder penalty and virtually nothing in the way of details about what transpired with the club owner or all of his employees. There wasn’t a written report of findings. And beyond the fine, almost nothing was officially known about what kind of sanctions Snyder faced from the league. Even the discovery was almost entirely shielded — until the Gruden and Allen emails popped up last week and showcased some of the less savory things that people will say when they assume nobody will ever see them.

The NFL certainly doesn’t seem to be throwing a fit about those emails going public, despite the fact that those messages were supposed to be shielded like the 650,000 others that have been reviewed from the Washington franchise. It also isn’t saying what else might have been in those servers — or who else might be implicated in a fashion similar to Gruden or Allen. Despite renewed calls for full transparency, the league has made it clear it’s never going to happen.

Some people will remain protected. Some people won’t. And the league will retain its ability to wield power over narrative and secrecy. At least until this whole St. Louis litigation gets into a courtroom. Then that all goes out the door.

That’s what makes this situation with the Rams so striking. It has morphed into a legal battle where the NFL cannot control the discovery process — nor control the narrative of what happens once a trial starts. If this litigation goes forward in Missouri, there’s no telling what gets dug up in the process. Maybe it will be something along the lines of the unsavory things that have already hit daylight. Like Rams staffers referring to a supposedly heartfelt goodbye letter to the city of St. Louis as the “AMF” letter. AMF being an acronym for “Adios Mother F******.” Or the discovery that chief operating officer Kevin Demoff was forwarding articles to the league office in 2015 that highlighted St. Louis' murder rate and credit rating.

Yikes.

Now pair that kind of discovery damage with a trial wave, where Kroenke has to get on a witness stand and face questions. And lining up behind him for their turn under oath, Jones, Kraft, Mara, Hunt and even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, all sitting in a witness box preparing to answer who knows what. Remember all those high-price attorneys the NFL pays for? Well, this is where the hired legal lawn mowers start running over hand grenades that they didn’t know existed.

And that’s why there’s a very good chance a staggering settlement check gets written to make all of this go away before a jury can sit down and deliberate about whatever is pulled from behind the NFL’s veil of secrecy.

If this week taught us anything, it’s that there is a lot of discomfort to be found on the other side of the NFL losing power over process and information. For that very reason, the NFL has to feel like it can’t face this trial in St. Louis. It’s not an investigation that can be buried. It’s not a set of probing questions on that witness stand that can be ignored.

And maybe most important of all, it’s not going to be an onslaught of media attention that gets wiped out by a total suffocation of information. No, this would be the league’s laundry — business, personal and financial — hung out for everyone to see. That’s the type of theater the NFL can’t control and it won’t be ignored. And it will be the center of the football universe when the curtain goes up in a court room next year.