What is it about Jerry Jones that's so frightening? The Dallas Cowboy owner makes a few side deals, invites Nike chairman Phil Knight to watch a game from the Cowboys' bench, signs a free-agent cornerback right after one of his best defensive backs goes down for the season with an injury—and the NFL warns of apocalypse. One week of mild Jonesian commotion, from a Monday night football game that featured Monica Seles as prominently as Troy Aikman to last Saturday's inevitable signing of Deion Sanders, and the league is positively hysterical.
There hasn't been this much alarm around the NFL since Al Davis tried to move the Raiders to an Irwindale, Calif., gravel pit. Jones pumps up cash flow a bit and, because he can't help himself, gives his fellow owners a little hotfoot at the same time. That's all. And it's the end of Western civilization? "He's trying to tear down this league, goddammit!" screams Cleveland Brown owner Art Modell, one of the league's patriarchs, from his car phone.
The outrage that Jones inspired was disproportionate to his actual mischief. He did nothing, really, that some other owner wasn't also doing. On Aug. 3 Jones announced a deal with Pepsi that allowed that company to become the official supplier of soft drinks at Texas Stadium, which Jones owns. The league howled because Coke is the NFL's official soft drink. But 10 days later New England Patriot owner Robert Kraft, who owns Foxboro Stadium, unveiled a similar deal with Pepsi, and no one seemed upset. When Sanders signed his $35 million contract with Dallas, there was grumbling that Jones was circumventing the salary cap. Of course the San Francisco 49ers had done it for the same player a year ago.
Striking a deal with Nike to display its swoosh logo in Texas Stadium (the right to make clothes bearing the Cowboy logo belongs to three other companies, per an arrangement with NFL Properties, the league's licensing arm) and to build a theme park next door, well, that was new. But it is Jones's hard-earned stadium, and he can decorate it any way he likes.
So, does any of this sound like the death of the NFL? Does it sound, as another NFL owner shrieked, "tantamount to treason?" Treason? What is it about this guy that's so scary?
Last Thursday morning Jones rolled into the Cowboys' Valley Ranch headquarters running late for a scheduled interview. "Late night," he said. "Haven't been to bed, actually." He had suffered a week's skewering in the press, had been called "a silly man with a lot of money" by Green Bay Packer quarterback Brett Favre and had been generally portrayed as the NFL's new outlaw owner, assuming the mantle from Davis.
"The man's gone too far," said 49er president Carmen Policy. "He's out of control." League sanctions loomed: A press release from the NFL two days before had promised a hearing on "apparent violations of league policies" and, in a dig that was as personal as any bureaucracy permits, complained about "the contrived manner" in which Jones announced his Nike deal during the telecast of Dallas's Sept. 4 Monday night game against the New York Giants. With Nike endorser Seles and Knight at his side, Jones had offended the league by hogging the camera and upstaging the halftime ceremony retiring former Giant quarterback Phil Simms's jersey.
Yet, for all that, Jones looked anything but beleaguered Thursday morning. In fact, he seemed exhilarated, having spent the entire night hammering out the Sanders deal. Alert in spite of his lack of sleep, his only lapse came during a routine show of manners. "Can I get you something to drink?" he asked. "Coffee, iced tea, Coke?" He froze. "Did I say Coke? I mean Pepsi. We've got plenty of Pepsi."
Actually it had been the kind of night that Jones lives for. Having been denied, by the 49ers, a place in the Super Bowl for the first time in three years, he completed a deal for a player who could help his team get back to the big game this January. Jones's desperation to get Sanders was made all the more acute when Cowboy cornerback Kevin Smith went down in Dallas's game against New York. "I'll be honest with you," said San Francisco owner Eddie DeBartolo, trying to appear above the fray to land Sanders, which he was not. "I think they're more obsessed with the 49ers than we'll ever be with them."
The NFL is not tolerant of the nouveaux riches. Guys who pay $140 million to get in the club—which is what it cost Jones to buy a 3-13 team and an increasingly empty stadium—are supposed to play through their debt and not act anxious or uncouth in any way. They should behave just like the gentlemen owners, those who have inherited all this fun without any of the debt load or have bought into it cheap: Divvy up the TV money, meet a couple times a year, shut up and don't agitate for change. "That would be fine," says Jones. "But you've got some guys with zero invested, and in the same room you've got guys who've invested $200 million to $400 million. You've got to create a bit of incentive for these guys with all that debt, a way for this to work for them."