On the next-to-last day of August, 15 days before his football team’s season was scheduled to begin, Jeffrey Lurie logged on to Zoom, greeted media members with a hearty “Hi, everybody,” and spoke 1,606 words over the subsequent 15 minutes without saying anything about football. Once, Lurie’s State of the Eagles address was an annual late-summer tradition, and though, from time to time in recent years, he has deviated from the routine and not made himself available to a bombardment of questions, it wasn’t surprising that he wanted to weigh in on the matters that have animated society and sports in 2020: the pandemic and the social-justice movement and its resulting protests.
More, it wasn’t all that surprising that Lurie weighed in on those issues for as long as he did before taking his first question. Like many wealthy men, Lurie often fancies himself a thought leader because he is a wealthy man, and he reflected on the sociopolitical goings-on of the last six months as if the Philadelphia football press corps had been waiting for nothing else, for all that time, but to hear what he had to say.
“There are two real elements of it that I find particularly important,” he said, “and one is to take ownership of it and step aside for a moment and listen and listen and listen. Then, try to use the gift of elevation, which is a human gift, and take ourselves to a higher level of ourselves and try to figure out what we all can do — as a country, as a city and ourselves and our football team, what can we do to be part of the solution. This has been going on for far, far too long, and it’s our history. It’s really, really important, though, I think, to feel the pain first and not anesthetize it.”
There was a time that this sort of monologuing from Lurie — he sounded like a political candidate born of a mind-meld of Bill Clinton and Deepak Chopra — would have elicited nothing but eye rolls and deep sighs and good-God-man-just-go-find-a-franchise-quarterback pleading. Those desperate for the Eagles season to begin and for a blanket of normality to fall over us probably rolled their eyes over those comments anyway.
But Lurie has more latitude to make them these days, and it’s not just because of the pressure that NFL players and portions of the media and public are applying to the league’s owners to do something to correct America’s inequities. It’s also because, maybe mostly because, Lurie is a more accomplished and more powerful figure — and is perceived to be a more powerful figure — than he once was. And that power and perception really have nothing to do with whether the City of Philadelphia might take up Lurie on his offer to convert Lincoln Financial Field into a polling center on Nov. 3. They have to do with what Lurie did to make the Eagles a more modern and competitive NFL franchise and what they have accomplished on the field since he bought them in 1994. They have to do with the thing that Lurie went so long without mentioning the other day: football. The football is what matters most.
When Lurie assumed control of them — as he himself has been fond of mentioning over the last quarter-century — the Eagles did not command the respect and attention that they do now. Buddy Ryan’s bombast, Reggie White’s greatness, and Randall Cunningham’s pyrotechnics covered up the truth of the franchise: It was, at its core, moribund and dilapidated.
The Eagles had won one playoff game in 13 years. They had no practice facility of their own. Veterans Stadium had leaks and rats. In 2000, six years into Lurie’s ownership tenure, when they had Andy Reid as their head coach and Donovan McNabb as their quarterback and were clearly a team on the rise, the Eagles were about to host a playoff game for the first time in five years. Yet Fox Philadelphia had to buy 1,500 tickets to ensure a sellout. Otherwise, under NFL rules at the time, the game would have been blacked out here.
An Eagles playoff game unavailable on TV because of insufficient fan interest? It’s unimaginable now. It wasn’t then. People forget that. They shouldn’t.
Lurie shouldn’t, either, because the improvements and changes to the Eagles and to his standing within the NFL and the Philadelphia community didn’t come about through his hopes and pleas for better political leadership and greater racial harmony. They came about through the millions of dollars that he and taxpayers spent to build Lincoln Financial Field and the NovaCare Complex, through the acquisition of good players in free agency and trades and the NFL draft, and eventually through the Eagles’ winning a Super Bowl.
The football is what matters most, still, even if Jeffery Lurie didn’t and won’t admit it.
They came about through the football. The football is still what matters most — to Lurie and the Eagles and the people who used to show up at the Linc on Sundays and won’t for a while, if at all, this season — and Lurie himself provided all the proof anyone needed of that reality. In July, when DeSean Jackson went on Instagram, sang Louis Farrakhan’s praises, and posted a fake quotation attempting to whitewash Adolf Hitler’s racism, Lurie had an opportunity to affirm publicly the values he claims to espouse. “I thought the social-media posts were disgusting and appalling; I don’t think anybody can take it any other way,” Lurie said, and he was right. Yet the Eagles’ punishment of Jackson, such as it was, remains undisclosed, a mystery, and he remains on the team.
You don’t have to be a cynic to wonder how the Eagles would have handled the situation if they had more than one veteran wide receiver who can stretch the field. And you don’t have to guess what the reaction will be if, sometime this season, Carson Wentz heaves a deep pass and Jackson hauls it in and the touchdown contributes to another NFC East championship. In a stadium empty of fans, the Eagles owner will stand and cheer. The football is what matters most, still, even if Jeffrey Lurie didn’t and won’t admit it. He did quote Gandhi, though.