As Goodell heads to New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII, the NFL commissioner finds the league in a remarkable situation: Its condition depends almost entirely on the view of the observer. Only the fifth commissioner the NFL has ever known, Goodell leads at time when the game can be described as both thriving and vulnerable.
While professional football pulls in television ratings and revenue that are the envy of other leagues, Goodell is constantly cleaning up messes and deflecting endless controversies, at least one of which threatens the sport’s future. He has become more recognizable than most players and has steered the league through perhaps its most tumultuous stretch ever, picking up battle scars along the way.
“It’s like he’s on a treadmill that’s always going fast,” New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said. “And when he does a good job, it only moves faster and the incline only gets steeper.”
The NFL emerged from its player lockout in 2011 with a deal that guaranteed 10 years of labor peace, only to find an obstacle course of peril: lawsuits from nearly 4,000 former players who say they suffered concussions, the suicide of retired linebacker Junior Seau, a murder-suicide committed by a member of the Kansas City Chiefs, waning participation numbers in youth leagues, an escalating debate about the health and safety of players, the lockout of NFL game officials and an alleged bounty system in New Orleans.
The last three issues rallied both players and fans against Goodell, but underscored just how tightly he clings to convictions. The commissioner has dug in his heels, upsetting both fans and players at times.
Asked recently whether the criticism ever becomes too much, Goodell, 53, said: “No. You do what’s right for the game. That’s what you have to do. It’s not always popular, but you have to do what’s right for the game.”
There’s a constant reminder of that hanging in Goodell’s Manhattan office. It’s two pages from the Congressional Record, dated Sept. 25, 1969, that feature the words of his father, the late Sen. Charles Goodell, a Republican who bucked his own party in arguing for the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam years before many politicians were ready. It was a bold stance that cost the senator his political career.