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How Roger Goodell's contract fight could ignite a civil war in the NFL

  • Roger Goodell is reportedly asking for a $49.5 million salary and a private jet for life.
  • But Goodell has performed badly as NFL commissioner for years.
  • The owners should dump him and reap the p.r. rewards of naming a new commissioner ASAP.

For many decades, the NFL has owned the no-lose product that is professional football in America. But the league's current leadership, helmed by Commissioner Roger Goodell, has made one crucial mistake after another and now the once-invulnerable league is playing defense.

And what's the NFL's response to these failures in leadership from the commissioner?

It's going to give him a big raise of course.

The news came out Sunday that Goodell is reportedly asking for a $49.5 million annual salary and lifetime use of a private jet among other perks in his new contract deal. That would be a nice jump from his last reported annual salary of $31.7 million in 2015.

If the NFL wants to move past its multiple serious problems right now the owners should not only refuse to give Goodell a raise, they should replace him.

At least one owner is taking steps to at least slow the contract renewal process down. Jerry Jones who owns the NFL's most valuable franchise in the Dallas Cowboys has started an unprecedented legal war to challenge the deal. And it looks like he's playing hard ball: Jones has hired superstar litigator David Boies.

But let's backtrack a bit and look at the NFL's major problems and how Goodell has made them worse.

"If the NFL wants to move past its multiple serious problems right now the owners should not only refuse to give Goodell a raise, they should replace him."

The most serious issue is the life-threatening and sport-threatening problem with concussions. Even after the landmark settlement of a lawsuit brought against the NFL by former players with severe health issues connected to on field concussions, the controversy and pressure on the league to improve safety continues to mount. That pressure was increased by two very scathing and recent public attacks on the NFL.

The first came from NBC sportscaster Bob Costas, who said on Wednesday that the game of football could become extinct over time because, "the reality is that this game destroys people's brains." And in a specific jab at the NFL's leadership, Costas also said that the league is dealing with the situation in a defensive fashion that is making it look worse.

The NFL certainly looked bad on Sunday afternoon after one of the leading experts on concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, (CTE), caught the league red handed so to speak during the Colts-Steelers game in Indianapolis. Dr. Chris Nowinski, himself a former college football player, has been relentless in his criticism of the NFL for not enforcing its own stated rules in treating potential concussions on the field. On Sunday, he immediately noted a very blatant-looking breach of those rules in the way the teams and the referees responded to a player's apparent head injury. He described it live on Twitter:

And there have been other instances like this during this season as well.

Goodell cannot be blamed when individual teams breach the concussion protocol or the referees fail to properly penalize players on the spot. But he can be blamed for not cracking down at least belatedly or adopting a tougher true zero tolerance policy for preventable concussion danger. The constant "wait and see" attitude is part and parcel of that ineffective defensive posture Costas was talking about. And that's prompted repeated accusations of cover ups against the NFL that compare the league's behavior to the tobacco industry.

Goodell's personal attitude on this issue has consistently put the league in a bad light. He often takes a detached and arrogant tone as he did with the news media in 2016 when he compared concussion dangers to the risks connected to "sitting on the couch." And then there was the time Goodell was caught laughing at a joke about concussions.

The second big problem the NFL has been dealing with this year is the kneeling protests over police brutality by players during the national anthem. When President Trump began bashing the NFL for not cracking down on this, it became a page one story. While many fans have rallied to support the players, some advertisers are feeling the heat for continuing to support the NFL. And there is no denying that this is happening at the same time that attendance and TV ratings are down. The NFL owners are concerned enough to have already met to try to fix this public relations problem.

Goodell flubbed this issue too, since the league once again has taken a mostly close-mouthed response to a very public debate. His options have always included working with the owners and the players union, (NFLPA), to find another time during pregame ceremonies other than the anthem to lodge a protest, etc. Instead, the problem has festered in a way a better commissioner could have avoided. And Goodell seemed to have made thing worse by simply saying "we believe the players should stand" and leaving it at that. In so doing, he looked a lot like a useless figurehead as opposed to someone worth about $50 million per year.

Remember too that we are just three years removed from Goodell's poor handling of the Ray Rice domestic abuse scandal. Many experts believed Goodell's time as commissioner was doomed then, but he somehow survived that backlash. Perhaps some of the owners who backed him them will reconsider this time.

Jones and his high-prices lawyers are hoping they will. He is clearly not the only owner who is unhappy right now. But even if this becomes one owner against the other 31, this is could very well become a civil war with a very ugly legal battle to go with it. The much easier choice is to seize the very low hanging public relations fruit by making a change in the commissioner's office.

The bottom line is Roger Goodell simply isn't worth $50 million and a private jet. And he surely isn't worth an NFL civil war. It's hard to see why so many of the league owners don't get it.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.