A letter appears in the player’s locker one day, if the season is in progress. In the offseason, it arrives at his home, via FedEx. His agent and the union receive copies via e-mail, too. The NFL Shield is there at the top, and it’s requesting that the player report to the league offices at 345 Park Avenue, in midtown Manhattan, for a meeting with the commissioner, Roger Goodell. Attendance is mandatory. Sincerely, NFL senior vice president Adolpho A. Birch III. The player has been officially summoned to the NFL equivalent of the principal’s office.
He arrives to New York the night before his meeting and ducks into an Italian restaurant near his hotel to huddle with his lawyer and strategize. He gets his story straight, what he wants to tell the commissioner, how he might answer certain questions. He worries about his message coming across the right way. He wonders how Goodell will respond.
The next morning, as he approaches the league office, he and his lawyer are met by a swarm of media members. He’s turned from a football player into a paparazzi target. The cameras snap. Don’t look so menacing, his lawyer had told him. Try to smile. Look relaxed. Relaxed? He just wants to get inside. How are these guys walking backwards filming me?
He is directed to the sixth floor, where he walks into a waiting area with pearl-white seating. In one glass case is the Super Bowl trophy. Behind it is another glass case displaying every Super Bowl ring. Magnifying glasses are there to get a closer look, as if they are some precious artifacts, which, here, they are. Behind the receptionist’s desk, a giant TV plays the NFL Network, showing pundits discussing news from around the league—such as the very discipline meeting the player is about to enter, the case reported in the media for weeks.
Now the player has to wait while a conference room is prepared, and those 10 to 15 minutes feel like forever. He’s transported back to middle school, sitting outside the principal’s office, waiting, waiting, waiting, a million things running through his mind.
This is a feeling several players have experienced since Goodell became commissioner 10 years ago. When Goodell took office, his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, had been considered passive when it came to player discipline. But as the league developed into a multibillion-dollar entity, Goodell felt it was his duty to police the players and “protect the shield,” the NFL’s image, as he put it. Spygate. Bountygate. Deflategate. All the –gates. Player discipline, though only one part of his job, has become something for which he will be remembered.
And so, sitting across from Goodell in one of these discipline meetings can give a unique look at him as commissioner. Like a principal, Goodell wants the honest truth, for you to express remorse and not to talk back. Whether you accept Goodell’s point of view could play a role in determining how the meeting will go. He can get loud and demonstrative when he’s making a point. Or he can put an arm around you and walk you back to class. Many players find his demeanor condescending and his punishments oppressive. Others think he is tough because he cares and wants to help rehabilitate you. Sometimes near the end of the meeting, after he’s heard the player’s side and is mulling it over, Goodell will deploy an old principal’s trick.
Tank Johnson visited the commissioner in 2007, after he had multiple off-field incidents, including having gun charges being brought against him. Johnson had argued to the commissioner, in part, that the legal system had tried to make an example of him.
“Tank, how many games do you think you should be suspended?” Goodell asked.
Johnson looked Goodell in the eye. “None,” he said.
“In this case, I agree with you,” Goodell said, according to Johnson. “But I have to suspend you to uphold the integrity of the National Football League.”
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Players get popped for on-field infractions, off-field incidents, using substances of abuse or performance enhancing drugs, or even deflating footballs—and the majority of them don’t come to the league office or meet with Goodell at all. There are collectively bargained policies in place governing players who are caught using PEDs or recreational drugs. If a player gets cited for an in-game incident, he might meet with a football operations staffer. When a player violates the “personal conduct policy” for something off the field, he will often meet with Birch, if anyone, and Birch will simply brief Goodell on the situation and the action the league is taking.
Birch estimates that, in Goodell’s 10 years, the commissioner has only attended about 10 to 15 formal face-to-face player discipline meetings. Usually Goodell takes the higher-profile cases, such as the one involving Donté Stallworth in 2009. Stallworth, a receiver with the Browns at the time, had struck and killed a man while driving under the influence in Miami, pleaded guilty to DUI manslaughter charges, and had spent only 24 days in jail as part of his plea agreement.
About a month after Stallworth was released from jail, Goodell met with him in New York. Goodell sat on one side of the conference room, next to Birch and the league’s legal consigliore, Jeff Pash, the two men who often accompany him at these meetings. On the other side Stallworth sat alongside an assortment of people: his mother; his close friend Steve Boucher; Rebkah Howard, a public relations representative; and two lawyers, one of whom was David Cornwell, a high-powered attorney who had dealt with Goodell in the past.
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Birch ran the meeting, as he usually does, making sure it was orderly, so that Goodell was free to listen, and speak when he saw fit, as Stallworth and his team made their case. Stallworth walked them through everything he did that day, from the moment he woke up, and Cornwell explained the context of the accident, and why Stallworth had received a relatively light sentence, which had created some public outrage. Cornwell brought out the police report, crime scene photos and a video taken at the scene that was not released to the public. It showed the accident in its gruesome entirety and supported the lawyer’s contention that the victim had suddenly appeared in front of Stallworth’s car while rushing to catch a bus, and that there was little Stallworth could have done to avoid hitting him, no matter if he were drunk.
Finally, Goodell piped up.
“I can’t remember if he cursed or not,” Stallworth recalled. “I don’t know if he did because my mother was there. He basically said, ‘Listen, I don’t give a shit about the legal side. I want to know that you understand the irreparable harm that you’ve done to this family, and the stain that you’ve put on the NFL, and yourself and your own family.’ ”
Stallworth’s lawyers had touched a nerve. “He does not have a high tolerance for over-lawyer-fication, so to speak,” Birch says of Goodell. “I’m an attorney; we value our services. But sometimes I do think things get bogged down over legal arguments back and forth. That will kind of set him off, I’ve seen. At least it frustrates him.”
As the meeting went on, Stallworth’s mother, his friend, and Howard all spoke on his behalf, about his character, how this was not typical of him. Then as everyone was leaving, Goodell pulled Stallworth aside to speak to him privately, one-on-one. This was another technique of his, an attempt to peel back the legal stuff and connect with the player on a more human level and maybe ensure that the player understands where he’s coming from.
Goodell reiterated he was “disappointed” in Stallworth’s actions. He emphasized again the gravity of the situation. He told Stallworth that the court ruling would have no bearing on how Goodell punished him now. “We’re not tied to the legal system,” Goodell told him.
Stallworth flew back to Florida. After replaying the meeting over and over in his head, he decided he needed to see Goodell again. He didn’t think he had expressed how remorseful he truly felt. A few days after the initial meeting, Stallworth flew back to New York unannounced and went to straight to the league office. When Goodell’s secretary said his schedule was packed, Stallworth sat there reading a book called The Holy Man, steeling himself to wait there all day if he had to … when Goodell spotted him on his way to another meeting. Not long after, Goodell cleared his schedule and invited Stallworth into his office, a cozier setting.