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Ben Frederickson: Questions NFL owners should ask before helping Kroenke with his relocation settlement tab

Back before they were herded together to approve the Rams’ relocation from St. Louis to Los Angeles in January 2016, some NFL owners hesitated.

Concerns were voiced during a league meeting held in December 2015 in Texas, according to notes included in evidence from the relocation lawsuit the Post-Dispatch acquired last week.

Mike Brown of the Bengals did not think any of the three teams — Rams, Chargers, Raiders — should move. Joel Glazer of the Buccaneers complained about teams seeking greener pastures before exhausting all options in their home markets Michael Bidwill of the Cardinals asked if the league could afford to abandon St. Louis, warning of creating the perception the league cares only about money. This was when Cowboys owner Jerry Jones launched in on Bidwill, cutting him down by accusing the Bidwill family of prioritizing money when the family moved the Cardinals from St. Louis to Arizona.

The scene foreshadowed what ultimately happened in the end. Stan Kroenke, with Jones serving as lead blocker, got what he wanted and others got out of the way. What is ironic, looking back now, is that owners outside of the league’s inner circle did not seem to realize then just how much they were along for the ride, and how far down the road they were. St. Louis was not the only party thinking St. Louis had a shot to keep its team. Some owners thought the same thing. And boy, were they wrong. The exhibits and depositions reported on during the relocation lawsuit, now available in full, paint a fuller picture.

Kroenke in 2006 told NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to remove Kroenke from the league’s Los Angeles committee, predicting a conflict of interest. One of Kroenke’s first decisions as the team’s majority owner in 2010 was to register the company that directly owns the team, St. Louis Rams, LLC, with the state of California. Giants owner John Mara said in a deposition that Kroenke had expressed his desire to move the team as far back as 2013. By the summer of 2014, according to Rams executive Kevin Demoff’s deposition, as many as 200 people were working on Rams stadium plans for Inglewood.

By then NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL general counsel Jeff Pash were not only aware of Kroenke’s plan, but had been silent partners in it for more than two years. We now know Goodell, thanks to diligent notes kept by Pash, was on an October 2013 teleconference with Kroenke, Texans owner Bob McNair and Steelers owner Art Rooney II in which Kroenke shared with the commissioner and the two influential owners his plans for quietly acquiring the Hollywood Park racetrack site in Inglewood where SoFi Stadium now resides. Kroenke had an in. His greatest business move ever, and it’s not close, was marrying into the Walmart empire. Walmart just so happened to own 60 of those desired Inglewood acres. The NFL had eyed the site as a potential stadium location as well.

“Walmart is ready to sell,” Kroenke said during that October 2013 call. “It’s a public company so we have to respect that but we’re certainly in a good position. I didn’t want to lose the window and don’t want to compete with the NFL. But it’s better if we buy it because we have 40 years of relationships. You don’t have to endorse me, just don’t compete with me.”

“You understand where this comes from,” Goodell told Kroenke near the end of the call. “We want, and I don’t mean to offend, but we expect you to keep us posted on your activity.”

“The NFL wants to create activity in LA,” Kroenke answered. “It is better to have guys we know doing this stuff in LA. Together we are really powerful. You have to weigh a level playing field against really getting something done. I trust Roger, and you, Art and Bob. I’m not quite there with some other guys.”

When Kroenke’s land purchase became known, Pash helped shape the messaging that distanced the Rams from the purchase. Goodell, who would later champion the merits of the league’s relocation guidelines, lied boldly on Kroenke’s behalf before the Super Bowl in 2014. “There are no plans to my knowledge of a stadium development,” he said when asked about the land sale.

I’m not bringing this up to reopen old wounds in St. Louis. I’m bringing it up to ask NFL owners who were intentionally left out of the loop if they are going to get played again.

St. Louis got its settlement. The $790 million has been split up between lawyers and plaintiffs. The only thing left to do here is fight about how the cash should or should not be spent.

NFL owners have a different fight on their hands. Unless they have handled it in secrecy, they still have to figure out if Kroenke is going to get away with handing off to his peers some of his financial damage sustained in the settlement. The cash sent to St. Louis stopped the fight between the league and St. Louis. It did not stop the fight between owners about how the money is covered on the back end. Throughout the relocation process, owners believed they were not at risk of being caught in the crossfire if relocation-based litigation emerged. Before the final vote that approved the Rams’ move to Los Angeles, the topic was addressed again, according to the league’s official minutes from that 2016 day in Houston.

“In response to a question from the floor, Jeff Pash confirmed that all three applicant clubs (Rams, Chargers, Raiders) had signed a commitment not to pursue or support litigation of any decision made by the member clubs on a proposed relocation,” read the league’s official minutes.

Yet ESPN reported in October 2021 that Kroenke had started trying to wiggle out of his indemnification agreement. Once again, Jones is helping lead the way. (Remember, Jones’ Legends company scored a sweet deal with Kroenke’s new SoFi Stadium.) Goodell will be the ultimate decider on the matter. The overseer of the indemnification language was Pash.

I would have a few questions if I was an owner on the outside of the league’s inner circle.

Such as …

How could Goodell possibly make an unbiased call on this matter? The commissioner’s big lie while covering for Kroenke was one of the brightest red flags in the relocation lawsuit. Goodell’s fib about Kroenke’s plans for Hollywood Park was a gift to the St. Louis lawyers who worked this case. Same for Pash’s notes. If Goodell demands a spreading around of Kroenke’s tab while protecting his staggering salary, he is forcing other owners to financially cover for his own mistake.

Why isn’t Pash better at his job? This indemnification issue would not be Kroenke’s latest legal playground if Pash had done good work. The legal wording of the indemnification agreement Kroenke signed should have been bulletproof. Long is the list of Kroenke business partners with knives jammed into their backs. The NFL knows this. Either Pash and his people messed up, or Pash and his people left Kroenke an out.

Was spreading around the fallout of whatever legal baggage Kroenke created during relocation the inner circle’s plan from the start?

©2022 Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

This story was originally published May 17, 2022 2:23 PM.

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