A politician's son who rose from intern to NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell presides over a multibillion-dollar juggernaut that will revel in its own success down in Dallas. Afterward, though, he'll face his greatest test of will and character
This is an article from the Feb. 7, 2011 issue
Thirty years ago at the Landmark, a bar just off the campus of Washington & Jefferson College in southwestern Pennsylvania, tension occasionally simmered between townies and college kids. Sometimes it was racial. One evening a black student walked in, sat at a corner table and ordered a beer. At the bar was a white townie who'd had a lot to drink. He ordered the black kid to scram. The bartender, a 21-year-old W&J senior, stepped from the behind the bar and stood between the two men.
The townie opened his coat to reveal a revolver. "I want him out!" he said, putting his hand on the gun. "I don't care—I'll shoot you too!"
"He can stay," said Roger Goodell, the bartender. "He's allowed to have a drink."
Time stopped in the crowded bar. "Let's just go outside," Goodell said to the townie, and they did. Goodell walked the patron down the street and out of the Landmark for the night.
Tim Foil, one of the bar's owners, wasn't there that night but had seen such incidents before. "You never know," Foil said. "Guns, too much alcohol. Bad things happen sometimes."
Two years into his NFL commissionership, in 2008, Roger Goodell received a phone call from Cowboys defensive tackle Tank Johnson, whom Goodell had suspended for eight games the previous year for repeated gun violations. As a condition of his reinstatement, Johnson pledged not to own a firearm for the duration of his NFL career. But one night outside his mother's home in Mesa, Ariz., Johnson had startled two young men who were using long screwdrivers to break into his car, a vintage '71 Chevelle SS, and they ran away. Johnson decided he needed protection for himself and his family. So there he was in a gun store with a .40 caliber pistol in hand, ready to buy it, when he figured he'd better call Goodell and explain the situation. Certainly the commissioner would understand.
"Tank," Goodell said. "Don't do it. Walk out of the store."
Angry, Johnson put the weapon down and walked out, remaining on the phone with Goodell. "I was so pissed off," Johnson says now. "When I got outside, he said, 'If you had a gun last night, what happens? If you use the gun, maybe you're in jail. Maybe you get shot, maybe your mother does. But you're out of football.' So I don't get the gun, and I'm pissed."
Then Johnson saw something he'll never forget. "That night a car parks outside my mom's house," he says. Private security, arranged by Goodell. "Every night till I left for training camp, from sundown to sunup, maybe six weeks, that car's there, with security watching my mom's house.
"Pretty good alternative to me maybe blowing somebody's head off."
It's a Monday in early January in the League Room, the 17th-floor conference room at the NFL's offices on Park Avenue in New York City. A Super Bowl XLV planning meeting is under way. Goodell and 40 senior staffers listen as the league's vice president of events, Mary Pat Augenthaler, informs them of a new initiative: selling 4,000 tickets, at $200 apiece, for fans to stand outside Cowboy Stadium and watch the game on a big-screen TV. While Augenthaler talks up the added value—Cowboys cheerleaders will perform, and each ticket buyer will receive a Super Bowl commemorative scarf—there's a quiet ripple of Are you kidding me? from those who hadn't heard about the plan.
They, of all people, should know not to underestimate the power of the NFL brand. Less than two weeks after going on sale on Jan. 18, those 4,000 tickets were gone. "It was like a shark hitting red meat," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said last week. "We're thinking of selling more tickets. I know this: However many we print, people will buy."
That's the NFL today—people pay $200 to be near the Super Bowl. "The NFL's become the most important entertainment vehicle in the U.S.," says Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports & Olympics, one of the league's broadcast partners. "More important than movies, than great TV shows. The [NFL's] TV audience is 30 percent bigger than it was two years ago. It's unheard of in a time when the average household has 120 channels."
Goodell, sandy-haired and fit at 51, is the steward of this multibillion-dollar juggernaut, having attained the job he dreamed about back in college. Over the first 4½ years of his tenure, he's had to address numerous crises: Spygate; player discipline, most notably in the Michael Vick case; an epidemic of concussions; and the problem of how to keep players from maiming each other on the field. All the while, one thing has loomed very large over the commissioner: the shaky labor deal he inherited.
Goodell had better enjoy this week's Super Bowl, because it's going to be all rancorous business after that. D day is coming. Unless a new labor agreement is reached in the next five weeks, the owners will lock the players out of all team facilities on March 4, and the clock will start ticking on the 2011 season, which is tentatively due to begin seven months after Pittsburgh and Green Bay leave the field in north Texas on Sunday night.
"If Roger's in office for 25 years," says Carolina's Jerry Richardson, chief labor negotiator among the 32 owners, "this will be the toughest challenge he'll ever face. However it turns out, it's a resolution he'll have to live with for the rest of his career."
Goodell will have trusted lawyers and owners by his side during the negotiations, but make no mistake: This will be a deal the commissioner drives, in meetings both with the NFL Players Association and its head, DeMaurice Smith, and with leaders of the 32 franchises. One ownership source says Goodell's level of trust among the owners is so high that if he recommends an agreement that passes muster with the players, it will easily get the three-quarters vote (24 of 32 teams) necessary for passage. "I've never seen our group more unified," said Jones.
But Goodell will need all the boldness and problem-solving skills he's shown since his bartending days to resolve the myriad issues dividing the two sides. Owners think they pay far too much to grow overall revenues and want an additional $1 billion exempted from the shared-revenue pool; the players say they shouldn't have to take a reduced cut of the pie. The league wants a rookie wage scale; the players want to know where those savings would go. The owners probably will propose adding two games to the regular season while subtracting two from the preseason; in exchange the NFLPA wants salary increases, better postcareer health care and improvements in pension vesting. The players want to see full financial records for all 32 teams, to check whether any team is actually in financial hardship; the NFL says the players have enough financial information.
The labor headache looms. Goodell, more than anyone, is the man who can make it go away.
The NFL has had three commissioners since 1960: Pete Rozelle, the heavy-smoking deal-maker who realized the great value of television in building the league; lawyerly Paul Tagliabue, who kept the train rolling into a period of immense prosperity; and Goodell, a politician's son and Tagliabue's longtime top lieutenant, who is probably best known so far for being the tough cop with players. But Goodell has turned into a better communicator and listener than Tagliabue was. Several owners told SI they feel far more connected to the league office and to the commissioner himself than they did under the previous regime. Owners also feel Goodell allows them to state their case and speak their minds more freely. In two sessions covering nearly seven hours with his negotiating committee and the full ownership group in Fort Worth, Texas, in December, Goodell did nothing but listen and take notes. Asked by Richardson after the sessions if he had anything to add, Goodell said, "No, but thanks for the way you ran the meeting."
Goodell has become as much the face of the NFL as Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. He tweets (@NFLCommish), though stiffly; he's never met a talk show on which he couldn't impart his message; he does fan chats on NFL.com. He blind-calls fans who e-mail him, text-messages players and coaches daily, gives his cell number out generously (including to a Cincinnati high school athletic director who had ideas for getting more NFL alums involved in coaching football), talks to tailgaters at most games he attends and sometimes just stops on the street for a quick chat with a fan about the game.
He can schmooze like Rozelle, and if he's not as cerebral as Tagliabue, he more freely embraces the new. As Tagliabue's top aide, Goodell pushed for the Thursday-night season opener to make the start of a new NFL year a bigger event. Last year Goodell moved the first round of the draft to prime time on Thursday, where it drew more viewers than the NBA playoffs. "Change before you're forced to change," he told owners when he campaigned for the commissioner's job in August 2006. "Find a better solution."
The former Bronxville (N.Y.) High football co-captain has an affection for the game that crops up even at the oddest times. On the evening of Dec. 20, eight hours after a stern face-off with Brett Favre over Favre's alleged harassment of a Jets sideline reporter in 2008, Goodell sat in the stands in frigid Minneapolis to watch the Vikings play the Bears. Favre started despite a shoulder injury. On the first series of the game, he rolled right and zinged a pass to Percy Harvin for an 11-yard gain. "The guy's unbelievable!" Goodell yelled.
But the commissioner has a cold and confrontational side that serves him well in staring down miscreants and business adversaries alike. "The way Roger talked to me when I was still hiding from what I'd done was such a slap in the face," says Michael Vick. "Like, 'Don't you lie to me!' With stronger language than that. It was rough."
If there is one thing I want to accomplish in my life besides becoming commissioner of the NFL, it is to make you proud of me.
—ROGER GOODELL, writing to his father, 1981
The third of Charles and Jean Goodell's five sons, Roger was three months old when his father entered the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican congressman from western New York in May 1959. In the ensuing years the boys played a big part in Charles Goodell's political campaigns. "In those days," said Bill, the oldest brother, "[voters] wanted to see the candidate's family. So the boys got out with our dad." In the 1966 campaign Roger was assigned to hand out kitchen sponges, the kind that expand to 10 times their size when wet, with GOODELL FOR CONGRESS printed on them. A sudden rainstorm soaked the sponges, ruining them, and little Roger felt he'd blown his assignment.
The boys lived half the year in Washington, D.C., becoming friendly with the Mondale kids and the Udall kids and others in Washington political circles, and half the year in idyllic Chautauqua, N.Y. Education was a vital part of family life; the boys remember their dad reading the dictionary from cover to cover to improve his vocabulary. "And Mom managed the chaos very well," says Bill, 55. "Five boys, a Great Dane, two cats, parakeets. The house was so warm, so welcoming, because of Mom."
But she worried about Roger, who got into fights, showed scant interest in his studies and lagged far behind his brothers academically. (They even kiddingly called him Retard.) "I spent a lot of time in the school psychologist's office," Goodell says. "I didn't apply myself. My mother thought I had learning disabilities. They used to give me these IQ tests, and one day my mother said, 'You blew away the IQ test, so there's nothing wrong with you.' I said, 'Mom, I just don't like studying.'"
He did, however, know how to protect himself—and his siblings. In elementary school he was a safety-patrol officer, helping younger kids cross D.C. streets. One morning he saw his youngest brother, Michael, being picked on by two kids on the opposite corner. "I ran across the street and kicked the crap out of them," Goodell says. After Michael became interested in ballet, heaven help the neighborhood boys who made fun of him for it; they'd have to answer to the four older brothers if they did.
Life for the Goodells changed with the assassination of New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy in June 1968. Nelson Rockefeller, the state's governor, appointed Charles Goodell to fill the vacant seat for the two years remaining in Kennedy's Senate term. As a Republican, Goodell was expected to follow the lead of his party. When he entered office, he supported the war in Vietnam. It took him one year to change course and for the full weight of the Nixon-Agnew Administration to come down on him.
"Charlie changed after an incident [in 1969] on the campus of Cornell," says his former press secretary, George Mitrovich, who remains a close family friend. "There was a Meet the Press--style event, where students could ask questions. All the questions were about Vietnam, and Charlie got hammered—in a lifetime of politics I never witnessed an elected official getting hammered like this. That night the senator was persuaded that the war was wrong."
Back in Washington, Goodell joined Democratic senators in cosponsoring the Vietnam Disengagement Act, which called for a timetable for withdrawal of all U.S. troops. A framed page from the Congressional Record dated Sept. 25, 1969, hangs on the wall of Roger Goodell's office today. It begins with Senator Goodell's words:
Mr. President, the war drags on.
It still bleeds the human, moral, and economic strength of our people.
Its slaughter reaches ever deeper into the ranks of our youth.
It still brutalizes our collective conscience, distorts our priorities, and frustrates our good intentions.
It knew no real beginning, and it seems to know no end... .
The Goodell boys were proud of their father for doing what he believed was right, though he told them it would probably mean the end of his political career. But they weren't ready for the onslaught from the Republican right. Vice President Spiro Agnew called Goodell "the Christine Jorgensen of the Republican Party," referring to the first well-known recipient of a sex-change operation. President Richard Nixon put Goodell on his notorious Enemies List. "We were ticked off," Roger says now. "You can imagine five boys being loyal to our father. But the real lesson was that my father never, never rapped the vice president, the president or anyone else. He loved the process, and that was just part of it."
Security around the family was beefed up because of a threat on Charles Goodell's life. "JFK, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy all had been shot," Roger says. "We were concerned our father was going to be assassinated because he was speaking out."
Goodell lost the 1970 Senate election, receiving just 24% of the vote in a three-party race. "But what did he retain?" Roger says. "His principles. His integrity. His character. It had a big effect on all of us."
On the future NFL commissioner, especially. "Roger has so much of his father in him," Tagliabue says. "He listens to all sides and has the courage of his convictions. I used to see it a lot when he was dealing with state legislators and governors. He understood the pressure elected officials were under."
Living in Washington turned the Goodell boys into Redskins fans; as a boy Roger slept with an official NFL ball in his bed. When Charles resumed law practice in New York City, the family moved to Westchester County, but the football bug remained strong in Roger; he lifted weights to beef up—he played safety, running back and tight end—and he became a three-sport captain at Bronxville High. He planned to play football at little Washington & Jefferson (he was rejected by his first-choice college, Davidson) but tore a knee ligament while training the summer before he left for school. Instead of having surgery and rehabbing, he figured it was time to focus on academics. In his first semester he stunned his family by getting a 4.0 grade point average.
"My goal was to prove to my family I wasn't a dummy," Goodell says. "I learned in high school that I was going to have to outwork people. I remember running around the track, training for football, and a faster guy ran past me. I just figured, I can outlast him. If I work harder than him, I'll beat him. And to this day I overprepare."
By the time he was a junior, applying for a job at the Landmark, Goodell had figured out his career path. "When I asked him what he wanted to do with his life," says Tim Foil, "he said, 'I'm going to be the National Football League commissioner.' Oh, O.K. Sure."
While in a management-trainee program at J&L Steel in Pittsburgh, Goodell wrote 40 letters to NFL teams and to officials at league headquarters, chasing the dream. When NFL executive director Don Weiss responded with a vague, "Stop by if you're ever in the area," Goodell called immediately, said he was in the area (if you consider seven hours away "in the area") and was told to come in the next morning. He drove through the night for the informal interview, and six months later he was offered an internship in New York, clipping newspaper stories and performing other lowly media chores. That led to a full-season media-relations internship with the Jets in 1983. Goodell was assigned to the team's first-round pick, quarterback Ken O'Brien. They both came in as rookies.
"I pretty much molded him into the man he is now," O'Brien says in jest. But Goodell, the preppy kid just out of college, had to learn to hold his own in the testosterone-fueled locker room. "If you stand up for yourself, you fit in," says O'Brien. "And he fit in better than any of the other guys in the p.r. department. I'd yell at him, 'Don't tell me what to do! Who are you?' One day he yelled back, 'Who the hell do you think you are? This is what I told you to do!' It was like he was saying, O.K., I understand the game and I can play it too."
Jets assistant Joe Gardi thought so much of the kid that late in 1983 he offered Goodell an entry-level position on Joe Walton's coaching staff. But Goodell chose to return to the league office—it was administration, not coaching, that most appealed to him. "I was just really drawn to Pete Rozelle and how he managed the business," Goodell says. "That's what I wanted to be."
At the same time, his mother, who was divorced from his father in 1978, was gravely ill with breast cancer that had spread to her brain. The other boys were away at jobs or school, so Roger, living at home in Bronxville, became a caregiver. Jean was an independent woman, but as her health declined, she needed help with everything. Her 23-year-old son eased her in and out of bed, took her to the bathroom and the kitchen, early in the morning and late at night, until in the last week of her life hospice workers came in. Jean died on March 21, 1984.
Bill Goodell's voice cracks as he talks about the work his little brother did at home: "Being there for her... . It was just a beautiful thing."
Goodell's first project upon being hired full-time by Rozelle in 1984 was to persuade college players not to sign with the rival United States Football League. Goodell and longtime Cowboys executive Gil Brandt traveled to bowl games and All-America gatherings to argue that the USFL's money was fool's gold. "We had an 800 number set up to ring into Roger's office, and gave it to all the players," Brandt says. "He'd never lie to 'em. He'd never tell a fourth-round guy he was going in the first round. But I think we saved some guys from signing in the USFL." At a black-college all-star game in 1985, Goodell laid a pro-NFL pitch on a little-known receiver out of Mississippi Valley State—Jerry Rice. He signed with the 49ers.
When Tagliabue succeeded Rozelle in 1989, he began trusting Goodell with jobs beyond the public-relations realm. Some didn't work, like the initiative to keep the NFL in Los Angeles. Goodell made scores of trips to the West Coast in the mid-'90s, forming a partnership with Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley and working to build a football stadium in Chavez Ravine. But Goodell and O'Malley couldn't make the economics work, and Goodell told Tagliabue that the league was better off making no deal than a bad one. When the NFL's 32nd franchise began play in 2002, it was in Houston, not L.A.—a rare failure for the league's rising star.
Goodell had better success with another franchise issue. In November 1995 Browns owner Art Modell announced he was moving his team from Cleveland to Baltimore. For such a storied football city to lose its team was a disaster for the league. Clevelanders were so ticked off that whoever was dispatched from New York to soothe them would be Public Enemy No. 2, behind Modell. Tagliabue sent Goodell to work out a deal that would put an existing or new franchise in the city. "Roger took a ball that was flatter than a pancake and blew it up," says Tagliabue.
It was clear in early negotiations that a new stadium would be vital to any chance of success, and Goodell told the city's chief negotiator, Fred Nance, that fans would have to help fund the construction by purchasing personal seat licenses throughout the stadium's lower bowl. Nance and Mayor Michael White were skeptical of the idea, and longtime Browns fans pleaded to keep costs down in a city whose economy was tanking. Finally Goodell devised a compromise: exempt the 10,000 seats in the Dawg Pound from PSLs. That won over Nance and the mayor. Still, Goodell would need 12 of 21 votes on the City Council to approve a stadium plan after it was agreed to by the city and the NFL. Only seven council members were solid yeses, leaving Goodell to politick with White and Nance. Eventually they got six more votes, the stadium was approved, and in 1999 the Browns returned to the NFL, keeping their name, their traditional colors and their old records.
"There would not have been a deal without Roger," says Nance. "No way. He came into a city under siege and was hard-nosed and stubborn. But he was sensitive to figuring out what we had to have to make a deal, and how much he could compromise knowing he had the owners to answer to whatever he did."
That's the reputation Goodell developed—problem-solver—on matters big and small. When the Rolling Stones were scheduled to perform at Super Bowl XL in February 2006, it was Goodell, at the time the NFL's chief operating officer, who ordered the suggestive lyrics in Start Me Up and Rough Justice to be censored or he'd replace the Stones with Stevie Wonder. When the lyrics in question were sung, all America heard was crowd noise.
Goodell also helped salvage the NFL career of Joe Cullen, the former Lions defensive line coach who was cited for indecent exposure in 2006 (he'd driven naked through a Wendy's drive-through) and arrested for DUI shortly thereafter, resulting in a one-game NFL suspension. Goodell followed Cullen's career and, satisfied that he was serious about his sobriety, wrote a strong letter of support when Cullen applied for the Jaguars' defensive line job a year ago. "Roger called and gave a very strong recommendation," Jacksonville owner Wayne Weaver said. "We would not have hired Joe without that recommendation."
When Tagliabue retired in 2006, Goodell seemed a slam dunk to succeed him. But league attorney Gregg Levy mounted a strong candidacy, and Goodell had only a three-vote edge after the first ballot of league owners. "I think a lot of owners looked at me as a mini-Tag," says Goodell. "Like, does this guy really have anything on his own?"
But Goodell had pleased the bottom-line-loving owners by serving as the league's lone dissenting voice in its 1996 dispute with Jerry Jones over the Cowboys' rights to make licensing deals with companies that were not official NFL sponsors. The NFL lumped local and national rights together at that point; Jones thought he could make far more on his own than by just taking 1/30th (at the time) of the league's licensing revenue. "I believed Jerry was right," says Goodell, who was an NFL vice president at the time, "and I thought we were wrong on suing him. We were in a staff meeting, and I said that Jerry had some good ideas; maybe we could sell sponsorship without the club marks. And the reaction was, 'No way. This is what we've always done.'"
Eventually, though, the NFL agreed to what Jones, and Goodell, wanted: The league could have, for instance, an official soft drink (it's now Pepsi), and each team would be permitted to sell local soft-drink rights (16 teams have Coca-Cola, 16 have Pepsi). It's been a boon to business. Jones estimates that in the 15 years of the new sponsorship system, the Cowboys have made $100 million or more above what they would have made under the previous arrangement. Consultant Marc Ganis of Sportscorp Ltd. estimates that the 32 franchises have brought in at least an extra $2 billion thanks to the current system.
Factor in soaring TV viewership—28 of the 30 most-watched programs this fall were NFL games—and the business of football obviously has been very, very good during Goodell's tenure. The on-field product has been terrific, with success spread around: four different Super Bowl winners since Goodell took over, and 10 different NFC champs in the last 10 seasons.
Then there's Goodell's human touch. An SI reporter accompanied him on two road trips during the 2010 season, to Cincinnati in November and Minneapolis in December, and saw him connect with people both inside the game and on its periphery. Goodell conducted some private meetings but spent 12 hours in the public eye, from tailgating with Bengals fans to a late-night stop at a Minneapolis Arby's, and he never shut off the commissioner switch.
Outside Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, Goodell took questions, then shook hands and posed for photos with 124 fans in about 45 minutes. "It's great, him touching the fans like this," said Bob Castellini, 68, a 40-year season-ticket holder who stood next to a van tricked out in Bengals colors. "He's reachable. And I like how he's drawing a line on player behavior."
Goodell stood in the middle of a crowd and fielded this question first: "These guys are making millions of dollars. Do you think it's that big a deal if they take a few helmet-to-helmet hits?"
"I couldn't disagree more," Goodell said. "We need to make the game as safe as we can, and we're learning a lot about head injuries. We have a lot more to learn, but anything we can do to decrease the risk of injury—invest in the best equipment, [use] the best research, make rules that promote safety as much as possible—we're not going to compromise on it."
Fair enough, said the questioner, Brian Ibold. But later he said, "The league's going too far. It's gonna be flag football."
In the bowels of the stadium, Goodell ran into Bengals wideout Chad Ochocinco. Goodell has fined Ochocinco nearly $300,000 in the past four years for various infractions of NFL codes, but they hugged warmly. Ochocinco sheepishly showed off the gold shoes he was wearing, a uniform violation that he knew would cost him. "Sorry, Dad," Ochocinco said, and they both laughed.
But the human element hasn't always been so pretty. Even Goodell's ardent supporters tussle with him. A couple of years ago, during NFL meetings in California, the commissioner and Steelers owner Dan Rooney, with their wives at the table, argued openly about the league's sanctions against Pittsburgh's physical wideout, Hines Ward. "He plays by the book!" Rooney barked.
Goodell sighed. "Dan," he said, "the problem is, you never think your players do anything wrong."
Goodell didn't make friends in New England in 2007 when he fined Patriots coach Bill Belichick $500,000 and the team $250,000 and docked the Pats a first-round draft pick for secretly videotaping an opposing team's coaching signals. Owner Robert Kraft thought the penalty too severe. Goodell told Kraft that, as part of the disciplinary action, Belichick would have to make a verbal apology in front of the press that week. Instead the coach issued a printed statement and refused to answer any questions on the topic. "I was given assurances that [Belichick] would tell his side of the story," Goodell says. "He went out and stonewalled the press. I feel like I was deceived."
Belichick responds, "I did not make any assurances about thoroughly discussing the subject publicly. I said I would address it following the league's review. I then did that in a way I thought was appropriate. I don't think that was deceptive."
In April 2007, after the massacre of students at Virginia Tech, the league invited players and alumni of the school to attend the NFL draft. So Vick, a former Hokie, was in New York City the last week of April just as news emerged linking him to dogfighting in Virginia. He and Goodell met privately the morning of the draft, and both men recall the exchange similarly.
"Michael," Goodell said to him, "look at me. Look at me! I'm not kidding here—were you involved in that dogfighting?"
"No," Vick said, looking down, refusing to meet Goodell's eyes. "No."
In a lengthy interview in his office last month, Goodell said, "It turns out later, when you look at the facts that came out, he was involved in killing a dog the day before, or within a two-day period. And he flat-out lied to me."
As Vick told SI, "I was really shaken up when I left there that day. I just kept thinking, I really hope this never comes out. I really hope it doesn't backfire on me. And of course it did. Everyone found out the truth. I made a huge mistake."
Vick was emotional as he recalled long nights in his cell at Leavenworth Federal Prison in Kansas, where he served 18 months for his role in the dogfighting ring. "Night after night I'd be thinking how I was going to make things right with the commissioner," Vick says. "It cut deep. It bothered me, day after day, knowing I lied to his face. I dreamed of the moment I'd have to face him again."
When Vick got out of jail and met with Goodell in July 2009, he asked if they could speak alone. "This has been on my heart for two years," Vick told Goodell, "I want to apologize—"
Goodell cut him off. He said he appreciated that Vick was sorry, but they were there to talk about the future, not the past. Goodell's reasoning: What players say in those situations is relatively meaningless. It's their actions that matter. And the action that mattered to Goodell that day occurred when Vick waved off one of his advisers who tried to take part of the blame for Vick's involvement in dogfighting. "No," Vick said, rising in his chair, "I'm the one who did this. It's my fault."
"That showed me he was going to be accountable," said Goodell, "and we'd be able to work together. But it's a long process."
The discipline Goodell handed out to Vick—a six-week suspension, which was reduced to two with good behavior—was decried across America as far too lenient; it is the most criticized of all the decisions Goodell has made as commissioner. But his point was clear: He'll give a player a second chance and see if it stands the test of time.
Goodell and Vick communicate three or four times a month, by phone or text. On Jan. 9, a half hour after the Eagles had fallen to Green Bay in the playoffs, Goodell texted Vick: I'm sorry about the loss. You had an incredible year. Remember the progress. I'm very proud of you.
A few minutes later Goodell's phone vibrated with a text response from Vick: Thanks Roger! I will continue to make you and my family proud!
In a few weeks Goodell will be confronted with the league's most pressing issues. The union will hammer him and the NFL negotiators—justifiably, in some cases—over changing the disciplinary rules in midstream this year. How, for instance, could a helmet-to-helmet hit that brought a $5,000 fine in Week 2 bring a $75,000 fine in Week 6? And how can the league say it's serious about preventing injury while it's pushing for an 18-game schedule? "I don't feel real confident in him at this point," says NFLPA Executive Committee member Scott Fujita, a linebacker with the Browns. "Is 18 games possible? Yes. Is it responsible? No. I think [Goodell's] a good man, but if you really care about the health of your players, you can't advocate an 18-game schedule without considering improvements in postcareer health care."
Expect Goodell and the league to bend on that issue but stand firm on their core economic demands, such as cost sharing by players on elements that the league says benefit both sides financially. Goodell's a proven deal-maker, as he showed in the Cowboys licensing dispute and the Browns' stadium issue, but he's also quite good at drawing a line in the sand and letting nothing obliterate it.
One example: Goodell and Ebersol are close friends. In 2004 Ebersol's 14-year-old son, Teddy, died in a plane crash. The next year, when the family donated $1.3 million for the construction of a dormitory at the private school Teddy had attended in Connecticut, Goodell persuaded Tagliabue and Players Association head Gene Upshaw to fund a pair of suites in the dorm. Dick Ebersol was overcome with emotion when he toured the facility and saw plaques outside the two rooms, side by side, noting the NFL's and NFLPA's generosity.
Now, fast-forward to the 2009 negotiations between the NFL and NBC over extending the network's broadcast contract for 2012 and '13. The NFL, according to Ebersol, insisted on a rights fee of $600 million a year, though NBC wasn't getting a Super Bowl in either of those seasons. Ebersol and Goodell had a few back-and-forth discussions, and Goodell finally said the NFL wouldn't take a dime less than $600 million.
"There was a coldness and a 'that's it' tone in Roger's voice that was chilling," says Ebersol. "At his heart Roger can be a cold son of a bitch. I think the people on the other side of the negotiating table are going to hear that in the coming months. He's going to show mettle, and he's going to do what he thinks is best for the National Football League. It's what he's always done."
Now on SI.com
Peter King, Tim Layden, Jim Trotter and Don Banks report from Dallas, at SI.com/nfl