1947: Mark Leibovich: "You can't fire" NFL owners
Ladies and gentlemen, we invite you to meet the meet the Prentice depress. Welcome in nineteen forty seven. The meet the press podcast. My guest today is Mark Leibovich. He is the chief national correspondent for the New York Times magazine and the author of big game. The NFL dangerous times leverage is also veteran of DC politics in two thousand thirteen published. This town a book about the political culture of Washington DC. He thought studying the NFL would get them away from covering politics. But thanks to a certain president in a certain Oval Office that is proved to be untrue. Markley barich. Welcome in nineteen forty seven. Good to be here. Chuck. So let me let me ask it just not bluffed way. 'cause out be honest. Mrs Todd who has already read your book cover to cover says. Yes. This town for the NFL. Wow. She just she just took my soundbite. Now. It actually is. It wasn't my intent. But it turned into it is that what did you look look might sort of initial idea for this as I love football have always loved football. I figure I just need a little break from the swamp. Right. Just need. I mean. The two thousand sixteen campaign was sort of kicking up, and I just found it very dispiriting. And and it was wanted to focus on something else a little bit. I mean, you know, it wasn't a fulltime job. But it was a nice side project and one thing I realized immediately is this too is a swamp. I mean, not only takes Trump out of it. It is a club. There are insiders. They're the same sort of fish bowl of media. People owners money people hangers on players coaches league office people team office people. Same rivalries sounds like K street Mitch congress in some ways, it is right now we have the White House to white has jumped in. But. No. So I that was the initial it wasn't dispiriting. But like, wow, there's a lot of politics here. And then you literally had the president or candidate for president of the United States. Just discovering football is a great sort of wedge issue that he just he rode well before Colin Kaepernick and decided that this would be a winner for him in that continues through this mid-term, you know, it's interesting. Book on one hand you look at it and like the NFL dangerous times. But the whole reason why we write about the that the NFL is having books written about this way is because it is so dominant. It is arguably the single unifying cultural recreational activity, we have in this country. Is there anything that comes close, no note hats, and if you look at TV ratings, I mean, the top seventy or seventy six of the top hundred top rated TV shows in twenty seventeen we're all football games in the last year fell or college either NFL or college, correct? And the one word that I would quibble with in in the description, you just gave was unifying. I mean unifying would have been true ten maybe twenty it now is as polarized, and you know, it's largely because of Donald Trump and not entirely it is now as polarized a cultural institution as we have. I mean, you have traditionally the left has really sort of been suspicious of the NFL. It's been you know, over the top patriotism. Yeah. Militarism violence, and one of the things Trump has done is. He's turned a good portion of the right against football too. He has sort of said, okay. These have been this is now I mean, look there does not firing these these anthem protesters. This is now a a great example of how we've become soft. It's it's permissive liberalism. It's political correctness every time someone wants to sort of be themselves. Someone throws a penalty flag. So that became a template through a metaphor for his larger make-america-great-again K. Feels like the reason they NFL is such a target is that they just haven't evolved, and I say evolved in this respect, I don't want to get in. There's a lot of ways to describe it. But number one in the way, it's financially set up. Okay. Let's just start with that. The fact that it is it is such a throwback. The fact that players have no very little rights compared to every other team sport. You know, no guaranteed contract. All of it. It it just feels as if and they've been slow on the medical responses and slow just they've been slow slow slow slow on the politics low. Not understanding the moment that we live in. They just seem to be is it is it just ten year is pick your pick your metaphor head in the sand. What is it? Well, first of all it is it is a league that is conservative. It's run by especially owned by thirty two owners, and they hire a Commissioner and the commissioners paid very very well. But the Commissioner Roger Goodell I'm here for the good of the game. I'm just looking sheets lobbyists for the thirty two owners. Correct. Who's the rain association? He has literally has a call sheet on his desk in which he knows exactly which owner he wins. The last time you talked to the, you know, Martha Ford the matriarch goal movie. The owner of the Detroit Lions Terry the owner of the buffalo. All right if like two three four weeks passed but before the buffoon then. Last conversation. He'll get on the phone. Make sure he knows what they're worried about what they need. So in in some ways, it's very insular. These are extremely I mean, they don't these people don't have to face election. I mean, you cannot I mean there's there's line from jed York who's the CEO of the San Francisco more than two years ago after he fired his third Goten three seasons. He said, well, look, you can't fire the owner. This was in response to the owner. We joked about it as fad he and look he was widely mocked for saying that. But it was the one really undeniably true statement, he made an whole press conference. And it's true. I mean, you cannot dislodge Daniel Snyder if you had to run for reelection in the you know in Redskins nation, he would lose like overwhelmingly would lose. And so there's that there there is I mean Roger Goodell. This is the second biggest entertainment company in in the country. Arguably after maybe, you know, Disney AT and T FOX push, you know, few in there, and they can have any CEO or any choice of CEO's thing. Why they they took someone they know Roger Goodell someone that has really he grew up in the league working then twenty three years old or something like that. When he started, and yes, and he knows the league he knows that. He's no nothing else. He's no nothing else. And look, I I don't think I mean, there's not a lot of fortune five hundred companies that would hire him to be there, you I'm obsessed with getting to know Roger Goodell for for for a variety of reasons, none of which have to do with football because he's the son of of a former US Senator and that just any US center. The first US Senator to stand up to Richard Nixon. I Republican US Senator stand up to Richard Nixon on the Vietnam war. And when I watch Roger Goodell, and I think about this. And I and I know how old he was when that happened. It was thirteen fourteen fifteen so you're as son you're very aware of your father. You're very aware. It is so clear to me he took leadership lessons from his father and his applied it and how he runs the league and how he handles things, but I'm cure. If the lessons are to be to do exactly the opposite of what his father did what an is that the lesson? That is a great question. I mean, he is obsessed with his father the fact that I have publicly mean why I've never been able to get Roger Goodell to do an interview with me. I the NFL Commissioner will just will not come on. He's come a previous NFL Commissioner's have done meet the press. He's done it before Charles Goodell did meet the press. I bet he would've Abedi did. And I've just because I wanted to have this conversation with any other. Yeah. I, you know, it's funny. I asked him a lot about his political background because I spent a Fairmount. I wouldn't say a few interviews with him. He's never he's not a great. Let me let me tell you the way. He's not a great interview. No, it'd be fun to have. I guess is. It's a book interviews a better interview with him than anything to his father was a US Senator from New York for me was appointed after Saudi case. Okay. So he replaced Bobby Kennedy was a Republican governor Nelson Rockefeller named him. And he was the first Republican was on board. That's right. He ended up losing to built a Buckley's brother if I'm not mistaken. Right. But this is after he turned against the Vietnam war. Nixon and all the anyway career Curto Roger Goodell Braxton with his father go obsessed with his father, and he saw his father. He spotted did the right thing you Roger Goodell has lost his career and lost his career. But Roger Goodell keeps on his wall of his office a copy of the Vietnam disengagement, actor whatever that Bill was called that his father. I think co authored or co cosigned, and he so he's obsessed with doing the right thing during circumstance like that having said that he just has been wanting to get reelected. He wants to keep the thirty two happy. Perfect example. Okay. Perfect example last year, he got a fair amount of credit for not caving to Jerry Jones Daniel Snyder, Bob McNair through the more conservative owners in the league McNair owns Houston. Texans Snyder the Redskins Jerry Jones the Dallas Cowboys. They all wanted him to just sort of put the hammer down and say, everyone must stand for the national anthem. This is an important issue. It's causing a lot of problems for us. We just got to resolve this. He didn't do that. He thought it would create a backlash. She also thought it would be the wrong thing. I mean, Braga Dell is a sort of patrician Republican. He's part of a wing of the Republican party. That is shrinking if it even exists at all anymore. He is very much of that tradition. But he's alternately propeller Republican he's he's a Rockefeller Republican. But he's a very conservative guy in his own sort of Rockefeller Republican sorta way he didn't think that was the right thing to do. And he sort of road that out Trump after a few weeks kind of lost interest. Penn State his walkout thing in Indianapolis. And that ended in look the numbers were sort of back to where they were by the end of the year the great playoffs great Super Bowl. And you know, I it was and so people I know a lot of players I talked to then if most of the owners are a lot of the owners, I talked to said look Roger actually kind of held firm. He did the right thing. He's got a new five year contract. Maybe we're going to see a Roger Goodell that actually may be AXA Cording to principles more in line with his father at this point. Then I don't know what happened. But in may like some owners, not the whole ownership it like a few powerful owners. And Roger Goodell said, okay. By the way, if you wanna protect you gotta stay in the locker room, otherwise we punish you. And it was a bizarre. And that the league office new probably within about a second maybe four hours that was a dumb idea Ma many of the owners were taken completely back. It totally pissed off the players it. I mean, it was a bizarre thing. I mean, they had road the thing out. I mean, they knew Trump was going to pipe again. But look Trump Trump's attacks on the league does it's proven that has a shelf life people who love football want to go back to football. Yeah. I mean, a lot of people who are going, absolutely nuts. When like the Vikings beat the saints on the last game in the first round of the playoffs last year. Head like a few weeks earlier vowed to be done with football because there was some terrible referee's decision or players. Healing or or something? And so that's where people want to gravitate back in for some reason. He just in Iraq Odell has I don't know if Jerry Jones got to him. I don't know if Rupert Murdoch got to him as sort of a condition of you know, FOX giving billions of dollars to the league for Thursday night office. That come from it might I don't know. I mean, but people like a large organization like five they were terrified of losing the NFL, even they are the worst slate of games of the week. So I I it's he has proven again. And again that he has he just wants to survive. He's like a lot of politicians today in which you know, in this this town principle itself perpetuation, Colin Kaepernick big court ruling. He he's going to get to depose some owners get to depose Roger Goodell. How petrified and they going to be on this. They're pretty petrified. I mean, they thought I mean, everyone I talked to up until this decision came down this week thought that this thing was going to go away. I thought there was zero. I mean, that's sort of thought. I mean, I didn't. I mean, and I don't think they had like some smoking gun Email where Roger Goodell. Hey, by the way, Elway situation that wasn't helpful. Yeah. John Elway said something to the effect. Well, he could have been in the league. And that was very, you know, it was misleading because he was referring to you know, a situation where I guess if he had. Left the forty nine. He would've had to take a huge pay cut. So it's like saying, yeah. Like, you could be in the league if you wanted to make like, you know, nine if you wanted to ninety percent pay cut or something like that. Anyway, that sort of indicated that there was a league that was a legal problem for them. He kind of backtracked. But he didn't really so that, but I don't know if that actually was was involved in the decision, but what's interesting this. They will now have a lot of very bad. People are a lot of people who are not great under pressure on the stand who could say some really goofy things as NFL. I was just gonna say these NFL owners really seem so out of touch. Yes. I mean, we've heard we've seen that the leaked audio of players owners where they were trying and Bob McNair, just keeping. He's comes across like. Yeah. Some southern white guy from the fifties. I what else to describe it without making disparaging. Well, he he bumped narrow and I spent time with him. He is he is that. He is. Okay. There was one moment. I'm a throwback. He's a throwback. Well, he's yeah. He's eighty look. He's eighty one eighty two years old. It's like he's in. He's not how many owners are over the age of seventy. I would say more than half. Maybe maybe third. Okay. Be m- aroused. We're getting the US Senate a few years ago when like, you know, Orrin Hatch was middle age and letting seventy two year old man. But you have people like Tom Benson of the saints just passed away last year. I mean, he was in his nineties marked the Fords internet nineties, you have a lot of people a lot of the owners who can't really come out in public for a lotteries. And I mean, you know, like, very sad. I mean, Pat bowl and the owner of the Denver Broncos has Alzheimer's. I mean, so it, but it's, but in a lot of cases, you have someone like Mark Davis in in Oakland jimmer say Indianapolis, Mike Brown's insanity you pretty quirky characters. Right. And I, you know, I got Kim Belsen my colleague of the time. I got this tape of this meeting this private meeting love when get tape of a private meeting between owners and players last October during the anthem crisis. And somebody's owner. I mean, look Terry Gula of buffalo was calling for. He said, we need a Charlton Heston, we need, you know, an African American Charlton Heston to be our spokesperson the way the NRA had Charlton Heston to be their spokesman said well, first of all Charlton Heston been dead for ten years. Second of all way. What has? All the players the meeting. We're like, well, why why can't like we why does that spokesman have to be black? And it was and he said, well, no not being. And then there was another moment. Stephen Ross the owner of the Miami Dolphins. Yeah. Called he said, I think we need to have a March on Washington with players and owners. Okay. Okay. Sounds good. Mr race. Look like, I don't quite know. But Mr. us had a dream. It seems like the that as much as we talk about the anthem and the culture wars, and there's no doubt. I think Colin capitals lawsuit is going to make it more problematic. Doesn't matter whether he wins or loses because the depositions are going to be problematic. Yep. To are to me, the real the real black Mark on this league. The real demand on this league. And how they run themselves these days as as a as an employment ploy is an employment institution is they do not pay the players for the risk that the players are taking with their own health. We can at some point you're going to be able to handle the concussion issue. If you pay the players for the risk. Commensurate to the risk. Okay. We, you know, you pay people more money, if they're willing to climb a light pole, you pay people more money if they're willing to to be far they're up on the building. NFL players are risk are shortening their life. We now know this. And they know some will are saying, okay, I'm willing to shorten my life in exchange for x. The NFL. No, they're going to have to guarantee contracts. They will resist it at all costs. I mean, it'll be really interesting to the next collective bargaining negotiation. And to the players who have never been United on this. I think they're gonna I think this is Kurt flood territory. I think this is and I think they'll have on their side. I mean, listen compared to when the west CBS was was renegotiated, you know, it'd be ten years by the time is comes up. There's a lot more known scientifically people just players are a lot smarter at least they should be a lot smarter. And and you're right. And and also, I mean, they see what contracts. I mean what Garin every every year? I mean, there are guaranteed contracts and other sports that just kept getting flashed before them. And there are some NFL players that are getting guaranteed contracts. Now, this has become something that, you know, certain star players are asking for and our place. Get it exact linemen need to get it. I mean, you know to be a DOE fits the quarterbacks to safest guy in the field these days, right? I mean, I'm not saying quarterback. They all are putting. In their lives. It knows putting their physical to safer. It's a it's certainly the they are the fine China of the football field, and there are all kinds of rules to protect quarterbacks. But no, it'll be look, I look I would demand it if I were playing I mean, but at the same time football is a really tough sport to union their union, but to strike on because very short season, very short careers, and again, it's sort of the military structure. It's like, this is there's sort of a, you know, command control like ethic in football that that, you know, prevails in in many, many ways we're going to see a lot more people that look like Aaron judge looked like defensive ends decide to play baseball. I'm just convinced that and I I don't blame him Garin. Judge would be a hall of fame defensive end. Could he's going to make. It's a lot safer for him to play baseball her Gibson. Yeah. Bron james. What do you wouldn't you love to see LeBron James of Android tight, end or? Yeah. You know, it'd be great. And of course, you know, LeBron James one of the many star. You know, celebrities said that they'd never let their kids play football. A little lighter here on this book since it's a heavy book. It's a light book. Heavy heavy topic about our about a sport that I love, and I just don't want it and be fixed. There's goofy stuff when every page Tom Brady. Yeah. This is your your your hero your idol. And yet you've got to be serious newsman. Mark leibovich. How do you did the snarky Markevic come out? Now sort of saw a little bit of Brady's Cortez Radi. Oh a little bit. Maybe a little bit. Look Tom Brady. I I'm very. The when he'd greeted you at the door. You know, it's funny. I did not get this. But people who have been to his house, currently, there's a Big Ben of the Giselle likes people to change into them because she doesn't like like regular shoes. Treading through the house, by the way, feeder ugly, and disgusting and gross. She's right. I'm with her. Gimme I that's a great idea. And I have a collection of eggs shed. Do that. But they'd sponsor meet the could get all kinds of cross perfect. And then you'll be you know, it would be it wouldn't be too ugly. You know, it might be actually it's interesting. I was Tom. You'll be glad note Tom Brady watches. I don't know if it was meet the press. But there was some morning show. I was like doing some goofy talking head thing on. And I got an Email from him saying, hey, look on TV talking about the election today. Look good. And I felt I got all fan. Boy. I said, hey, I saw you on TV on Sunday, Tom. You look good too. Like, hey, he thought I looked good. But no, he. Yeah. He's a I spent a fair amount of time with him. I liked him a lot. I am unabashedly. You know, we're best friend. I don't know. But you think you say you, and I both have spent so much time around politicians, and I feel like I know the ones that I thought let me in a little bit. And I know the ones that haven't here. Here's the thing. Eighty let you in in so much as I think he could look he he knows I'm reporter. He knows that. This is not a normal transaction. And I knew that, you know, writing story about him. I'm writing a book about him. So, you know, obviously, you have to be aware of that. I got I mean, the owners are much more political. I mean, were they're much much more like politics savvy little savvier. I mean, Robert Kraft spent a fair amount of time with the owner the patriots. I don't think he likes me. Now. I don't think he liked the way he was portrayed. And there was a big. I guess Boston is such a great parochial sports. And like, you know, I think I'm gonna cover the sports page today with Dan Shaughnessy column. It's great. But Jonah pathetic. Pending you should you should read. It does me a big sell if you're listening. Thank you, Dan. Honestly, sean. But, but no, I mean, it is it is interesting because in some ways as a political reporter over the years have tried to much as I can living here and being among the, you know, the world that we live in try to stay somewhat as an outsider if you can if it's possible, and it was much easier than football because that's not my world. I'm not a sports writer, and I think that made it easier in many ways because people figured okay, they didn't really know me at all they figured all right. Well, he, you know, politics. He covers politics. They all wanted to talk politics with me because you do realize that people care about politics, even if they're not political like, Tom Brady's always saying, I'm political. But like so what what's eating Donald could do it. You know, you say, hey, what's what's Brock Obama like, and and there was this weird scene? A couple years ago when the patriots won the Super Bowl and went to the White House, not not the Trump won the Obama one. And there were people just milling around afterwards. There's like Bill bell check meeting like Elizabeth Warren for the first time in like Bernie Sanders, like hanging around like like was sort of like awkwardly looking at Malcolm Butler who had just like, you know, nowhere by a few weeks earlier one of the and it's just like, but they all kind of curious about each other. And there was sort of looking at each other like what is going on here? And of course, you all thinking the other was zoo animal. Yeah. Or just not knowing what to make of it. Now is this watching. I mean, it's just I love those events. You just see everyone because everyone's like a fan of each other. But they don't know what to make of each other weirdly geared. Yeah. So I'll never. Yep. Anyway, that's a whole other thing. You did a you didn't exit interview with Paul Ryan. And you've done these interviews with Tom Brady who gave you more. That's interesting. Wow. A let me put it to you this way. The people came up a lot more people can up to me afterwards and said my God what was Tom Brady. Like, so sorry, sorry understand the risks level. I mean, did you feel no Brady gave me more Brady game more because he he can be very expensive. I mean, what's interesting about a guy. Like Tom Brady is everyone sort of there's a lot of people who assume he's just an airhead people just assume he's just a pretty face. He's not terribly. He's he's one track mind. Well, he is one track mind, and what's interesting gearhead. I think though that if he put his mind, whatever, you put his mind to I would take it that he would be if he were a Cy if if he were a chemical engineer. That's all he would think about the rate. That's what he yes. He reminds me a little of a computer programmer longtime ago, it was like a tech reporter, and you'd see these I there's this great little seen in this this documentary on Tom called Tom versus time. It was like on Facebook Facebook, and it got to let goofy attention for. Goofy things ago. He says this about how he might feel under appreciated his son. Weird. But the most fascinating scenes, and I've seen him do this. He was watching film on the computer and his dad, and he was just looking at it. He said, you know, I literally hours could pass. And I and like I would not notice that any hours pass it could be two in the morning, and I could be doing this for eight hours, and like no time, I'm just obsessed with and then you say he won't be on the phone with his his offensive. Josh Cincinnati preseason game number three two thousand and seven look at that. Look how the tell of the defensive back on third, and it was like, whoa. He's looking for things. Just and and that was a computer program that was like that was a coder at four in the morning who has the entire game in his head that I could never see. But like there's just like there's a glazed unis in his eye. That was just an incredible thing to what I don't know if we realize how I think some of the smartest people in. The country our quarterbacks, I don't think people realize the visual, my guess is most quarterbacks have a photographic memory. It you know, what saying not just quarterbacks though. I mean, it's linebacker lineman. I mean the level of sophistication that most of these positions require especially through middle linebacker the quarterback of the. Yeah. I mean, I would I wouldn't last a second in there. I mean, I wouldn't let second with a computer in a computer light place. I mean, you do realize, and that's I mean of the sort of classes of people I met in doing this book owners, you know, league office people the players to me are the most fascinating. I get the sense that when you look at the major sports that actually the most intellectually challenging sport for the player, not just the physical challenge. But the, but you know, is football football. Absolutely anything else. Not only that. But like, you know, the the level the studying they have to do. I mean, you cannot relax. It's the everybody would assume all the baseball players of the smart ones, the MSA not. They're not. You have to have a a brain that is highly young shinning. There's no for football than any other. There's is not think that it's the one that actually put your brain at that put your brain the most vulnerable, the sport that needs your brain. Yes. That's I didn't even think of that. But it's true. Wow. Yeah. No, you do you need a pretty sharp mind to play football. And and yet now, you're right. And it destroys you. It's it's I feel the guilt these days when I watch it when I see a hit that you think oh my God. That's really going to impact is and at the same time. I just love the game so much. Yeah. This is the same. My daughter's will sometimes say to me dad, how can you do that? Like, I get this a little bit this slow my wife same thing, and it's the same. And and you know, I'm lucky I have daughters Beauge. So so he didn't wanna play doesn't wanna play. Okay. And his grandfather played in the AFL is that right? And he sees Buffalo Bills Richard ta no, no, no, no, no, no. This is my my my wife's side. So I can't claim it. I always wanted to claim John Danny the long standards. Davis reading also is named Benny Russell. And he was a star quarterback at the university of Louisville. He replaced a guy named Johnny unites broke all of Johnny United says records at the time. That's an effect. Lamar Jackson only last year broke a the last record that my late father in law still held at the you're rushing touchdowns in a season. Really? Of course. Lamar Jackson broke it in the six game of the year. But wow. Anyway, he was it was a backup at the Bill. So we've always any good athlete. And so my wife has always had this. It'd be football. She's like, well, if you want, you know, he doesn't want to. So it's okay. Went out there. He loves baseball. He loves watching football. But he doesn't he doesn't want the physical. But it would have been. We were glad we weren't. I don't you know, there's a lot of peer pressure not to put your son in football and special judgment. There's a lot of judgment about it. And I believe in it as a team Bill nothing made me a better manager, I hope and working with others than football. There's but there's got to be a way to do it safer. You would think I mean, there might not be. I mean, look, it's an it's a dangerous sport. And we'll be at any speed. And we're just learning more. You know, you can do I think, you know, say for helmets rules. I mean, there are things you can do around the Mark. But then just competent just make sure people know what it is. And then you compensate them accordingly. I I would hope I mean like these owners are not they're conservative, they're greedy. They're so wealthy. And look, I it's just not gonna I'm gonna leave it with us. The number one thing I hope that happens way for your book is that you you have shamed. The networks into stop showing owners the owner. But you hope I hate that. I hate him with you. It's so who grass? That's what bothers me. I so I went off on this. So Robert Kraft head of the bri-. We're wrapping up here. I'm getting all Bill Simmons like we're just gonna see the owners like, okay, we have to see like the billionaires highchairs you do it Yaman craft. What do you write the check with your right hand or left hand? Does this kalibbala? Like we have to like in the Roman in the color upper thumbs down from that plan actually comparing any owners to collect. It's just make that perfectly straight. And every anyway read the book, it's I think people like it. It's actually people people the early feedback spin great, and I need to like be excited because I am. Well, you should be congratulations. The next Sal paolantonio, Margaret, which is going to move from politics to sports like our buddy essay paolantonio, South County. I knew the hair already I need the hairpiece. Yeah. Okay. We will leave it there really going to get a piece, you know, whatever gets me on TV to like just on the sideline. Bob wanna fit in as long as you. Look like, Mark Davis hairdo. It's great. It's actually the first page on the photo insert. And we could talk all the living daylights outta me. The Mark Davis photos. All right. Thanks very much. John in nineteen forty seven. Meet the press podcast subscribe for free and apple podcasts. Tune in or Spotify or leave us. A message nineteen forty seven podcast at gmaiLcom till we upload again big thanks to my producer. Matt rivera. We'll see. Thanks for listening to the nineteen forty seven podcast from NBC's. Meet the press with Chuck Todd. You can listen to MSNBC twenty four hours a day seven days a week on tune in or subscribe today to tune in premium for a specially curated experience.