The other day I wrote about the NFL’s stance toward protesting players, and about the league’s history of dealing with race and symbolic patriotism. I did not suggest an overarching solution to any of these problems.
Today, I’ll offer not an instant cure but a move that if orchestrated with intelligence and grace could begin to move the NFL into the 21st century.
The NFL brain trust consists of 33 men — Commissioner Roger Goodell and 32 team owners. Of the 33, only Jaguars owner Shad Khan is not white. He is of Pakistani descent.
The real problem with the makeup of the NFL brain trust is that there is never anyone in their meetings who can speak to the black experience in America.
I’ve always been fascinated and sickened by facets of American race relations. I studied what was then called “African-American Literature” in college, and to read Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois and Toni Morrison is to empathize with, if not understand, the horrors of American life for those discriminated against based on skin hue.
NFL owners love the power they hold, and feel entitled to it because of their business success. They aren’t going to hand a franchise to anyone.
So how can a restrictive group better itself, become more inclusive, and invite someone to the table who can become a sounding board and ally?
The next time an NFL franchise goes up for sale, the league should position Vikings Chief Operating Officer Kevin Warren to buy it.
Warren would be an ideal point person for a new ownership group. He is exceptional at what he does. He is the highest-ranking black person on the business side of an NFL franchise.
He worked so closely with former Rams coach Dick Vermeil in St. Louis, when the Rams built their only Super Bowl champion, that Warren and Vermeil vacation together today. Warren has excelled at running player programs, linking the business and football aspects of a franchise, and promoting community outreach and public relations.
He is universally liked and respected. I spoke with a top executive with another local franchise who said that despite the accolades Warren has received, his influence inside the Vikings franchise, and his influence in growing the franchise into the powerhouse it is today, is underrated.
If Warren were sitting in a room of NFL owners, he would command respect, and he would be able to navigate turbulent waters. When the Vikings were tripping over themselves to address Adrian Peterson having beaten his son with a switch, the franchise looked inept and misguided until Warren spoke to the issue.
Warren loves football. He loves the NFL, despite its flaws. He could work as a consensus builder with the owners’ large egos.
He would need help. Unlike most NFL owners, Warren is not known to be a billionaire. The NFL would have to be willing to approve ownership by a group headed by Warren.
This might be a long shot. It might be unrealistic. But it would be good for a league that needs to become more open-minded, diverse and modern.
Bud Selig frequently took arrows for being weak when he was commissioner of baseball. He made his mistakes, but what this view forgets is that Selig worked for the owners. He had to subtly build consensus because ordering billionaires around doesn’t work.
Goodell has kept his job not because he is good at it, but because he has formed relationships with enough owners to keep him safe; because he takes the brunt of league criticism, acting as a human shield for the owners; and because owners would rather keep him in place than look like they are yielding to media sentiment.
Billionaires don’t like to be told what to do.
Warren knows that. He’s savvy and credible enough to work that room.
When I wrote a profile of Warren last year, his wife and other people close to him told me Warren has two goals:
• Win a Super Bowl in Minnesota.
• Become an NFL owner.
The former might or might not happen.
The latter should.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MNSPN.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org