“Roger was the son of a public figure but not a public figure himself when he first became commissioner,” said Joe Brown, the senior adviser to the commissioner, who has worked closely with Rozelle, Tagliabue and Goodell. “Since that time, however, he very much has evolved into a very polished person in public.”
Relations with players sour
In Goodell’s early years as commissioner, he was cast as a no-nonsense sheriff, policing outlaws such as Michael Vick and Ben Roethlisberger. Publicly, he was mostly milquetoast, a handsome face who shook the hands of draft picks and kept the NFL on the tracks.
But relations with players began to strain during the bitter contract negotiations of the 2011 lockoutand worsened as the Saints bounty scandal bubbled to the surface and players began to grouse about hefty fines for illegal hits.
Goodell has led the charge against the Saints, who were accused of paying their players for excessively violent hits, but the commissioner took a public relations hit when the player suspensions he levied were overturned on appeal. Goodell’s factual findings were corroborated, but the scandal highlighted an inherent conflict: a game that generates an estimated $9.5 billion annually is constantly undermined by its own violent nature.
A litany of concussion-related lawsuits against the league by former players, including all-pros, Pro Football Hall of Famers and most recently, Seau’s surviving family members, has reinforced the danger of pro football and sparked growing concern from players and the fans who watch from afar.
“Right now, the league office and Commissioner Goodell have very little to no credibility with us as players,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said last month.
Goodell’s constituents are many, though, and while he likes to say he’s not interested in popularity contests, he does have many parties to appease: owners, players, coaches, sponsors, TV partners and fans, among others. It can be trying, a weight that Goodell shoulders mostly alone.
“He keeps so much inside of him,” said Tim Goodell, 55. “He doesn’t want to burden anybody.”
Last year, Goodell agreed to a contract extension that will keep him in the commissioner’s office through the 2018 season. The SportsBusiness Journal reported that Goodell currently earns about $10 million annually, a figure that should increase to nearly $20 million toward the end of his contract.
Those who know Goodell well say if he ever wants to step away from the NFL, he has the skills for public office.
“He’s so principled, so talented, so good, that I think there are other things he should be doing,” Mitrovich said. “It would be kind of nice if we were all talking about another Senator Goodell from New York, wouldn’t it?”
Said Irsay: “He’s very capable of running for president.”
Goodell doesn’t openly talk politics and has made no public statements about his plans beyond the NFL. According to Federal Election Commission records, he has donated more than $50,000 to political candidates and committees since 2000. A total of $19,200 went to Republican candidates, including the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain, and $9,700 went to Democrats. He also gave a total of $25,000 to the NFL’s political action committee, Gridiron.
Before a playoff game earlier this month, Goodell met with a group of fans in Denver, where one asked the commissioner what he hoped his legacy might be.
“I haven’t even begun to think about that,” Goodell said.
“The answer is I just want to make a real difference while I’m here, try to make the game better for fans, for players, continue to grow the game. As long as I can continue to do that, that’s a good thing. When I can’t, I’ll leave. You won’t have to ask me twice.”