Duane “The Rock” Johnson’s dream of playing pro football was derailed by injury years ago but today he has a chance to change the game from the front office.
The former WWE star turned Hollywood megastar and entrepreneur signed a deal for his XFL football league–which he salvaged by buying it out of bankruptcy in 2020–to become a live research and development lab for the NFL. The deal will allow the NFL to test new initiatives ranging from on-field technology to proposed rule changes and even trial runs for new officials, before it has to implement them in NFL games on Sunday afternoons.
In exchange, the XFL, which failed at becoming a competitor for the country’s biggest pro football league in two previous iterations, gets the NFL’s blessing and tacit support. Financial terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, so there’s no indication of how whether the NFL is pouring enough cash into the XFL to help it stay afloat after its scheduled relaunch next year. The XFL was originally slated to relaunch this spring, but that timeline was pushed back by the pandemic.
But with the R&D deal, the NFL has a built-in interest in seeing the XFL succeed as a test-kitchen of sorts for the evolution of football, as opposed to viewing it as a competitor to squashed out of existence.
That Johnson and his business partner, Dany Garcia, bought the XFL and are in a deal with the NFL is ironic on multiple levels. The XFL was originally founded by WWE chairman Vince McMahon, who was Johnson’s employer as “The Rock”, a charismatic pro wrestler who became the promotion’s biggest star in the early 2000s. Johnson, who played college football at the University of Miami, parlayed his WWE fame into a career as a blockbuster action hero who Forbes lists as Hollywood’s highest-paid actor and the 10th-highest-earning celebrity in the world.
The deal also comes as the NFL wrestles with a lawsuit and more controversy over race, specifically diversity in its hiring practices at the executive level. Johnson is biracial; his father, former pro-wrestler Rocky Johnson, was Black and his mother, Ata Johnson, is of Samoan descent.