Interview: ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio on America’s Undying Love for the NFL

His book, “Playmakers: How the NFL Really Works (And Doesn't)” is out now

March 15, 2022 7:23 am
The official football for the NFL with the signature of commissioner Roger Goodell.
The official football for the NFL with the signature of commissioner Roger Goodell.
Diamond Images/Getty Images

From a lawsuit over racist hiring practices and suspension of a star player for betting on games to a team employee filming cheerleaders undress without their knowledge and allegations of a league-led cover-up in a court case, the National Football League has seen its share of scandals… since the Super Bowl.

Shameful, salacious and shady, those scandals are just molehills compared to the financial and cultural mountain that the NFL has grown into over the last two decades on the way to becoming the most profitable and popular pro sports league in the United States. The NFL and its media coverage is a 365-day-per-year car crash — and we can’t turn away.

Is there anything that could convince American football fans, who are divided politically, socially and racially but stand united in their passion for pigskin, to change the metaphorical dial and divert their attention and their dollars elsewhere? That’s one of the questions we asked ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio, the author of the just-released book Playmakers: How the NFL Really Works (and Doesn’t).

InsideHook: You worked as a lawyer before starting PFT. Has that legal background been helpful?

Mike Florio: When I first got started in this business, I felt horribly inadequate because I had no journalism training, education or background. Before too long I flipped from feeling horribly inadequate about not having a journalism background to thinking I would be horribly inadequate covering this sport without my law degree. It’s been extremely helpful to have a legal understanding. I tried cases. I was busting my ass. I worked at large firms. I worked by myself. I’ve seen it all. That’s helped tremendously It would be very intimidating to have no understanding of how it all works.

Is the year-round coverage of the NFL, both positive and negative, good for the league overall?

Well, that’s the [Dallas Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones mindset. Generally, yes, any publicity is good publicity. The problem is it reaches the critical mass. There was a bill introduced in Congress recently that would take away a federal tax subsidy for new stadiums for all professional sports teams. That’s the kind of thing that happens when you end up on the radar of legislators, then potentially prosecutors. That’s the other side. Publicity becomes bad if people go to jail. Not that [Miami Dolphins owner] Stephen Ross, who’s in his early 80s, is going to jail for what allegedly happened with Brian Flores. But if he offered him money to lose games, it’s a violation of the sports robbery act and he could be indicted. You have to worry about Congress. You’ve got to worry about an ambitious prosecutor. So yeah, it’s good to be in the news, but some of this stuff is real. We’ve seen players get in trouble and go to prison. We saw it with Michael Vick. We don’t see it happen with owners. So, any publicity is good publicity has its limits.

The jacket of Florio’s “Playmakers: How the NFL Really Works (And Doesn't).”
PublicAffairs
The jacket of Florio’s “Playmakers: How the NFL Really Works (And Doesn’t).”

Do some of the league’s issues stem from people like Jones and Ross being owners of teams?

There just aren’t enough individuals who are in a position to write a check for 30% of a franchise and then have the money to operate the team and satisfy the prevailing NFL rules for debt and equity and cash. That gets harder and harder as team values go from $1 billion to $2 billion to $5 billion. There’s a thought that these teams are going to be worth $8 to $10 billion each before too long. Who are you going to find with the money to run a team? There might be an inherent problem with having American oligarchs own these teams. Are they going to be good stewards of a franchise millions of people follow, financially and emotionally? Will they make good decisions? Will they be good business partners? It doesn’t matter if they are a jerk or don’t know anything about football. All that matters is if they have enough money to buy the team. That’s the only factor. I don’t know if that’s good for the sport. The NFL is so fascinating to me in that billion-dollar football operations are ultimately controlled by monarchies. Eventually, a team is going to end up in the hands of somebody who has no business running a football team if it gets passed from generation to generation. It’s going to end up with somebody who has no business owning a team and become a complete debacle.

What would be a way of fixing the current system?

I don’t know how you fix it, but if things go haywire for a team that’s run like a corporation how the Packers are CEO Mark Murphy gets fired. He’s gone. You ain’t going to fire Jerry Jones. You can’t fire the owner. That’s the problem. Sometimes the owner needs to be fired. In a corporate structure, you could have a board of directors made up of a diverse crosssection of the community the team represents. Maybe that’s better than having folks in charge who are surrounded by sycophants. These are people who have grown very accustomed to riding butt naked on a horse. And no one says boo. I don’t know if it’s good for the league to have 31 of the teams run by people who are that privileged and are at a point in their life where no one can question them or hold them accountable. I know corporations are hardly blameless when it comes to corruption in America, but at least there would be accountability for the person in charge.

Is there anything that could happen that would lead fans to stop investing time and money in the NFL?

The one big concern that the NFL is a scandal that would result in the allegation of games being fixed. Think of the Tim Donaghy scandal in the NBA. It would be difficult for one official in an NFL game to have the kind of impact a single referee in an NBA game has, but these are things the NFL needs to be concerned about. There was an episode of the PBS series Frontline from the early 1980s that was devoted entirely to the connection between the NFL and gambling, There were some crazy allegations in there about attempts to fix games and get to quarterbacks, coaches and referees. That’s what the NFL needs to worry about. If there’s ever an allegation that games are fixed that can be substantiated, that could be something that would be difficult to come back from. I think the belief that the outcomes are rigged is the only thing that would cause people to tune out and turn away. The NFL needs to be very, very careful about making sure that it doesn’t get itself into a predicament like that.

We’ve seen a recent trend of star players changing teams, similar to the NBA. Is that here to stay?

I think we are at a point where at least quarterbacks have real power and are moving toward a spot where they’ll be able to talk their way out of town, if they want to. Teams are more willing to recognize that if they have a quarterback who is supposed to be a franchise guy and he’s not all in, they’ve got a problem. The franchise quarterback shows up early, stays late and works extra with the key players. After the Super Bowl, [Rams wide receiver] Cooper Kupp estimated he and [Rams quarterback] Matthew Stafford put in 500 hours of work outside of regular practice. If you have a quarterback who doesn’t want to be there, he’s not going to do that. That’s really where the rubber meets the road. If you have a team that does not want to give a guy what he wants, you’re basically daring him to act like somebody who does the absolute bare minimum. I think most of these guys have egos that are way too big to let them ever go out and play that way, but that’s all they’ll do. I’m going to call the play you tell me to call and I’m going to execute the play. That’s it. This used to be completely unthinkable. Things have changed.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.