During his tenure as NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell has been the subject of unrelenting criticism while overseeing unprecedented growth. And, despite the public’s perception of him, he’s positioned to be the face of the NFL for years to come
Roger Goodell didn’t need to make the target on his back any bigger.
It was two days before Super Bowl XLIX. The commissioner was about to deliver his annual state-of-the-NFL press conference after the most turbulent year of his tenure. Goodell had just been investigated for his handling of the Ray Rice case by former FBI director Robert Mueller. Now, one of the two teams about to play on the sport’s biggest stage would do so under the cloud of allegations regarding the illegal deflation of footballs.
Those who work closely with Goodell hoped this wouldn’t be one of those times when he invited more scrutiny. Back in September, in the wake of the league’s mishandling of domestic violence punishments, Goodell was about to take the podium at a hotel in Midtown Manhattan when one league executive fretted, “I know he really, truly cares about this issue. I just hope he lets that show.” He didn’t then. And he wouldn’t now.
Veteran reporter Rachel Nichols, then with CNN, took the microphone to ask Goodell a question regarding the fact that the Mueller report had been funded by the NFL, and so would Ted Wells’ investigation into the newly minted Deflategate.
“Somebody has to pay them, Rachel,” Goodell said, midway through his answer. “Unless you're volunteering, which I don’t think you are, we will do that.”
His defiance froze his audience: Media. Players. Fans. Even his bosses. “I remember squirming, thinking, ‘Why would you say that?’” says Giants co-owner John Mara. “That will get replayed a million times, so somebody sitting in mid-America, or anywhere, is watching that and saying, ‘Wow, this guy is really arrogant.’ And that’s not really him at all in real life.”
That is, in fact, what much of America thinks of Goodell. A survey earlier this year of self-described NFL fans, conducted by Public Policy Polling, put his job approval rating at just 28 percent. It’s been nearly 10 years since Goodell succeeded Paul Tagliabue, and he has taken the league to unprecedented heights of prosperity, but along the way he’s faced unprecedented criticism. Inside that paradox lies an important question as he enters his second decade on the job: Does it matter that the most powerful person in sports is also the most hated? Can a man so reviled by the public rule the most popular sport in the country effectively ... and should he?
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Back in 2006, Goodell was unifying. That August, he waited for three hours in a hotel room near Chicago, while the owners went through five ballots to choose the league’s fifth commissioner. When he heard a knock, he opened his door to find Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, smiling.
He was elected on Aug. 8, 2006, and officially took office on Sept. 1 of that year. The old-school owners liked that Goodell had risen through the ranks inside the NFL, where he’d begun his professional career as a 22-year-old who’d written a letter to Pete Rozelle asking for a job. The new-school owners were drawn to his ability to monetize and create new revenue streams, something he’d excelled at while heading NFL Ventures, the league’s for-profit arm. He projected a strength that seemed able to withstand scrutiny; he could be a charmer, like you’d expect from the son of a U.S. Senator. After Rooney delivered the news, Goodell’s first act as commissioner-elect was to shake the hand of each owner who had put him in that chair.
Ten years into the job, evaluating his success depends on your perspective. There are only four such positions across the major sports leagues in the U.S., and very little turnover, making the role of commissioner something of an abstract one. In conversations with current and former players, coaches, sports executives inside and outside the NFL and eight of the league’s club owners, each group defined success differently. (Goodell declined interview requests for this story.) One measure: Can you trust the person in the job?
“It all depends who you are asking. And if you are asking me, I understand he is making business decisions in the best interest of his bosses,” says Giants long snapper Zak DeOssie, one of 11 players on the executive committee for the NFL Players Association. “Trust is a tricky word in this conversation. But you’ve gotta appreciate the man’s hustle when it comes to keeping the bosses happy.”
During a league meeting in 2010, Goodell shrewdly presented the famous $25 billion figure, his goal for league revenues by 2027, whetting owners’ appetites. Since then, revenues are up more than 50 percent, with the league expected to rake in more than $13 billion in 2016, according to a projection by SportsBusiness Journal. That’s past halfway to his goal. Football was already America’s game when Goodell took over for Tagliabue, but now it’s America’s religion. Says Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, “Goodell has absolutely been the right person for this stage of the NFL’s growth.” Adds the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones: “Triple A-plus great.”
Everything is bigger now, starting with the lucrative TV contracts. In the most recent deal inked, the Thursday night primetime package for the 2016 season, CBS and NBC are each shelling out $45 million per game for the right to broadcast a package of five games, per Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch. Eight clubs have built or are in the process of building new stadiums since Goodell took over, including the long-awaited Los Angeles solution, and 14 other teams have undertaken major stadium renovations. Teams know the way to more primetime games and hosting a Super Bowl is a modern stadium with more luxury suites that can be sold for a lucrative naming rights deal. Under Goodell’s watch, the NFL has seized the digital explosion, milked big-time sponsors and developed new ways to consume the game, including broadcasting rights sold to Yahoo and now Twitter. Instead of abandoning the international frontier after NFL Europe was shuttered, Goodell doubled down with regular-season games in London starting in 2007, selling reluctant owners on the untapped business opportunities overseas.
That dogged pursuit of the bottom line, though, has come at a cost. Some veteran players refer back to 2008, when the NFL opted out of its existing labor agreement with the players. The decision was pushed by the owners, but Goodell took heat as the new boss in town. With the lockout looming, he made a round of team visits during training camp in 2010, but the sessions backfired. Players started to see him then how many see him now: as a vessel for the interests of the owners.
“He’s the face of the owners,” says veteran defensive lineman Jared Odrick, the Jaguars’ union representative. “He gets paid, what, $40 million a year just to take the heat and speak so the owners can remain faceless. Is it smart? Hell yeah, it’s smart. I’ll take $40 million a year to be NFL commissioner and be a politician.
“We’re not allowed to have an opinion, and if we do, what can I say without putting myself in hot water? Are they going to let you in his office to talk to him face to face? And if they do, will he listen? The NFL will make money regardless.”
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Goodell once said the best piece of advice he received when he took over the head office at 345 Park Avenue came from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman: Deal with issues directly. Face your detractors. Don’t avoid the people who are saying things that you don’t agree with.
When Goodell said that, in a Q&A with Peter King, it was the summer of 2007. Even before Michael Vick pleaded guilty to federal dogfighting charges, Goodell had told him not to report to training camp. Earlier that year, during a three-week span, he had meted out harsh punishments to Adam Jones, Chris Henry and Terry “Tank” Johnson for violations of the personal conduct policy. Goodell was dubbed the sheriff who was out to clean up the game.
Johnson, a defensive tackle with the Bears at the time, recalls flying to New York to meet with Goodell in May 2007. Johnson had just served 60 days in jail after a police raid on his home turned up six unregistered firearms, a violation of his probation for an earlier gun charge. Goodell listened to his story, asking for details like where the guns had been stored in the house. Johnson told him he had kept them high out of the reach of his then 2- and 3-year-old children.
“He asked me the direct question of how many games do I believe I should be suspended?” Johnson recalls. “I told him zero. He told me that he agreed with me, but he had to suspend me to uphold the integrity of the NFL.”
Goodell suspended Johnson for eight games, but the two developed a close relationship. Two years later, in the summer of 2009, Johnson came face to face with a guy trying to break into his car. The next day, he went to buy a firearm to protect himself, but one of the stipulations of his reinstatement was that he couldn’t own a gun. He called Goodell from the gun store. “Don’t buy it,” Goodell told him. If Johnson didn’t feel safe, Goodell offered to send a security guard to his house. A guard arrived the next day, and he stayed for a month, until Johnson left for training camp. In 2014, Johnson spoke at the rookie symposium, sharing his story of rehabilitation after his legal troubles. Now, at age 34, he’s working as an intern in the league’s player engagement department.
But in many other cases, Goodell’s role as a disciplinarian has been a driving force in widening the gulf between the league and its players. In 2012, Tagliabue, the man whom Goodell had learned beside for nearly 20 years, vacated all of the player suspensions levied by Goodell in Bountygate. It served as confirmation for the players that the commissioner was abusing his power. Later, current and former federal judges overturned Goodell’s indefinite suspensions of Rice and Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, reinstating both players.
In June, when Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson was still awaiting discipline for an arrest last summer, he darted away from a reporter asking about his opinion of Goodell. “No comment! No comment! I’ve got something pending,” Richardson said, adding nervously: “Roger Goodell is a great guy; he’s doing a good job.”
Article 46 in the collective bargaining agreement empowers the commissioner to impose discipline and, if he chooses, hear the appeal, for conduct detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence in, the game of football. That provision has been around since the first CBA in 1968, so it isn’t new. But union leaders (who declined to participate in a story centered on Goodell’s 10th anniversary as commissioner) argue his abuse of that power is what’s new.
“If the negotiations were tomorrow, do you think that the calculus changes? Of course, right?” union president Eric Winston said in an interview with The MMQB in 2014. “Because he is no longer going by what the agreement was. There wasn’t a problem before, because there was a due process. There was fairness.”
(Tagliabue, who returned to the Washington, D.C.-based Covington law firm as senior of counsel after retiring as commissioner, has on a handful of occasions carefully critiqued his successor’s approach to more than just the Bountygate decisions. But for this article, a decade after leaving the NFL behind, Tagliabue chose to stay on the sidelines. “I’ve long believed that when you leave, it’s important to be gone and no longer connected,” he wrote in an email, “and after 10 years this includes no evaluating or commenting on your successor’s tenure/performance.”)
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Goodell is a much more visible commissioner than Tagliabue ever was. Part of that is his politician’s blood. Part of that is by necessity.
In 2009, Goodell’s job changed. That October, he was called before the House Judiciary Committee, where he was admonished for the NFL’s turning a blind eye to the consequences of head trauma in football. “The NFL sort of has this blanket denial or minimizing of the fact that there may be this link,” California Representative Linda T. Sanchez told Goodell. “And it sort of reminds me of the tobacco companies pre-’90s when they kept saying, ‘Oh, there’s no link between smoking and damage to your health.’”
Goodell returned to New York incensed that the sport to which he’d committed his life had been so exposed. His message to his staff was essentially: That’s it. We’re going to fix this, and I don’t care how long it takes. It was a tactical move. But it also came out of a fierce loyalty to the game. He wants this to be part of his legacy. “Maybe Roger was late to the party,” says a person close to Goodell, “but when he got there, it became his party.”
That same season, the NFL adopted stricter return-to-play guidelines for players who had suffered concussions. That was also the beginning of the defenseless player protections that are now a staple of today’s game. Since 2005, the league has adopted 42 safety-related rules changes. In competition committee meetings, Mara says he’d often tell coaches or other owners wary of watering down the game, The commissioner wants this, to help the rule-change proposals advance. Today, there are unaffiliated neurotrauma consultants on the sideline of every game, and athletic trainers seated high above the field with binoculars working as injury spotters. The NFL has worked with the feeder levels of the sport, too, lobbying to pass youth concussion laws in all 50 states and funding programs to staff more high school games with athletic trainers.
“I do think his actions to make the league safer have been effective; I’ve noticed how much it’s changed in my seven years,” says Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin. “People hit each other; it’s not a safe game. Violence is still the best part of the game, but the way we’re coached is different now than when I entered the league.”
But despite the steps forward, Goodell’s bottom-line mentality has taken away from his credibility on this core issue of his platform. Players can’t reconcile his stated health and safety priorities with the fact that the league keeps adding more of the Thursday night games that stress their bodies, and wants to stretch the season to 18 games and expand the playoffs. A proposed $765 million settlement for the concussion lawsuit brought against the league by former players was rejected by a federal judge, who ruled that the sum may not go far enough to cover every player needing aid for brain diseases linked to repeated head trauma. This spring, without admitting any wrongdoing, the NFL agreed to a $1 billion payout.
The latest salvo fired at the NFL came in the form of a Congressional Report released in May that concluded top NFL officials improperly influenced how their $30 million “unrestricted” grant to the National Institutes of Health for concussion research would be awarded. NIH had chosen to give $16 million of those funds to a Boston University group led by Robert Stern before the NFL intervened. Stern, director of BU’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center, has been critical of the NFL in the past and is working on finding methods to diagnose in living people the neurodegenerative disease that’s been linked to contact sports. The league’s explanation was that it had already funded another BU study and had earmarked this money for a different kind of longitudinal study.
The optics were bad. And Goodell’s response didn’t help. About 36 hours after the report had been released, he held a press conference at the spring league meetings in Charlotte, N.C., a two-hour flight from New York. “I didn’t see the report,” he said. “We were traveling down here.”
• THE NFL AND THE BUSINESS OF CONCUSSION RESEARCH: Prominent researchers and, now, Congress, are hammering the NFL for their interference in concussion research. And as funding stalls, everyone involved has something to lose.
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The low point of Goodell’s tenure was palpable. At the winter league meetings in December 2014, the NFL planned to roll out its new, beefed-up personal conduct policy. The league office had authorized a feature on Goodell for the Wall Street Journal, a publication the sponsors read. But Goodell was still under investigation by Mueller into whether or not the commissioner had lied about seeing the infamous elevator video, of Ray Rice striking his then-fiancée, before issuing his initial discipline. (The report later determined that Goodell had not lied.) As the owners descended upon a Dallas hotel, some seemed weary of fending off the criticism coming his way.
“I agree that was a low point,” Mara says. “That did lead to some people questioning whether he could ever continue to be successful, given the amount of vitriol. Some people started to feel, is he ever going to be able to do anything without people criticizing or doubting him going forward? But I think he’s proven that he can.”
Goodell is hypersensitive to criticism of “the shield” and the game of football. He will respond aggressively to both. But when it comes to criticisms of his personal approach, he’s not interested in fixing the perception around him. “Almost to his detriment,” says a person who has worked closely with the league office.
But his bosses, the owners, are interested in fixing it. From the beginning, Goodell made his relationships with them a priority. Several influential owners say they talk to him about once a week. Jones says Goodell has involved ownership more in the decisions made by the league office, which has enhanced his support. League meetings run more quickly and efficiently, which appeals to a time-is-money crowd. As Goodell enters the second decade of his tenure, there’s been a push to get the public to see more of what they see in their one-on-one interactions with Goodell. “A fine man,” says Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie.
That’s why the league office hired Joe Lockhart, the White House press secretary while Bill Clinton navigated impeachment. And the scrutiny of Goodell is certainly a reason owners are open to changes in the disciplinary process as the current CBA nears its expiration date after the 2021 season.
“It is probably is not necessary for the commissioner to be taking arrows for every one of those kinds of decisions,” says Steelers president Art Rooney II. “But we have always had a strong commissioner’s office, and I think we want to keep it that way. I expect there will be changes, but I might not think they’ll be as dramatic as some other people might want or desire. We are still going to have a commissioner that is going to have to be prepared to weather some storms and make tough decisions.”
The players union is pushing for neutral, third-party arbitration of discipline under the personal conduct policy and integrity-of-the-game rules. The NHL and its players, for example, agreed in the most recent CBA that any suspension over six games, for on or off-ice infractions, can be appealed to a Neutral Discipline Arbitrator. But that process hasn’t been perfect, either. Last month, the NHL filed action in U.S. District Court to vacate the arbitrator’s ruling to halve Bettman’s suspension of Calgary Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman, punished for hitting an official during a game.
One possible compromise between the sides is having a neutral arbitrator handle appeals for off-the-field issues only. Or, perhaps Goodell retains final say on integrity-of-the-game violations, but is taken out of the initial process by having another officer issue the original discipline. There may not be a right answer.
“The right answer is you put a commissioner in place who you have confidence in and you let him do what he thinks is right,” says the NHL’s Bettman. “If you’re battered by the wind, you can’t do this job. You have to make good decisions, for the right reasons, and stick by them.”
The owners guessed in 2006 that Goodell would be that kind of commissioner, and time and again he’s shown that quality—whether you call it stubbornness or fortitude. During the 544-day Deflategate saga he held his ground, undeterred by the fact that he was taking on the league’s best player and one of his closest allies in ownership, not to mention independent critics who faulted the league’s science. (Patriots owner Robert Kraft declined to be interviewed for this story.) He was resolute in not wanting to reach a settlement to lessen Brady’s four-game suspension. Last week’s ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, rejecting Brady’s appeal of that suspension, was a win for of the authority of the office of the NFL commissioner.
The long-term effect that could have on Goodell’s relationship with Kraft is yet to be seen. But other owners have shown a willingness to move on. This past offseason, the Chiefs were stripped of two draft picks and fined for violating the NFL’s tampering rules in their communication with receiver Jeremy Maclin before signing him in free agency last year. Hunt issued a statement that called the penalties “inconsistent” with discipline in similar matters and pointed out confusion in the NFL’s communication of its policies. Goodell denied the Chiefs’ appeal. Asked if that affected his view of Goodell or their relationship, Hunt paused to consider his answer. “Only in the short term,” he says. “There is a lot of other business for he and I to focus on.”
No matter how choppy the sailing has become from a PR perspective, Goodell continues to have the backing of ownership. “Look at the business of the NFL, look at the game on the field, look at the improvements we’ve made in player safety, look at the [head trauma] research we are funding, look at the improvements we’ve made largely due to his influence on benefits for retired players,” Mara says. “I would argue he has done his job very well.
The fact that business hasn’t dipped, Mara continues, “no question, that was a big factor for a lot of owners. For me, it was more than that.”
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On Monday night, Goodell was at the Sports Illustrated offices in downtown Manhattan for the New York premiere of the documentary film Gleason, chronicling former Saints special teamer Steve Gleason’s life with ALS. When Goodell arrived, he was warmly embraced by Scott Fujita, Gleason’s former teammate and an executive producer of the film. As Fujita introduced the film, he thanked both Goodell and the NFL.
“They’ve been behind us in a big way,” Fujita said, “and you can’t have this kind of support without people like them.”
It was a strange juxtaposition. Goodell, in the arms of one of the Saints players he disciplined in Bountygate. Goodell, moved to tears by a film about a player who is suffering from a neurodegenerative disease that is strongly presumed to have a link to his football career. But perhaps it was the human side of a commissioner who rarely lets that show. Those close to Goodell say part of the reason he’s so guarded in public, to the point of arrogance, is that his emotions are so close to the surface. Says Jerry Jones, “I think he’s sensitive [to the criticism], yes I do. He’s a sensitive man.”
Some owners wonder how long Goodell would want to do this job. He is 57; Tagliabue retired at 65. And the job’s demands are different today. It is more complicated. The criticism reverberates more thanks to social media and a 24/7 news cycle powered by the league’s popularity.
But others who have worked closely with Goodell can’t picture him finding another vocation that will satisfy his desire to leave his mark the way this job does. Goodell’s current contract expires in 2019. The way things stand today, he will have the chance to shepherd the game of football through its most uncertain time for as long as he’d like to do so.
“If there was an election held today, the overwhelming majority of owners would re-elect him,” Mara says.
Adds Rooney, “I expect he’s going to be our commissioner into the next decade.”
Says Jones: “As far as I can see into the future.”
Perhaps that confidence is why, four months ago at the NFL Draft in Chicago, Goodell playfully embraced the villain role in which he’s been cast. As he stepped to the podium on Saturday for the start of the fourth round, the boos continued to rain down. He looked out at the crowd and gestured with his hands for them to get louder.
“Come on,” he said with a smirk. “Bring it on.”
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