He has kept a lower public profile in recent years, but he also has been a trusted leader to most owners, having overseen the burgeoning of the industry’s revenue to more than $16 billion per year, according to estimates. He is guiding the league and owners through another critical phase, negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association that league leaders hope to complete by early next year. A new set of national television contracts also is at hand.
Once he’s done with all of that, Goodell will have a big decision to make, if he hasn’t made it already: Has he had enough?
Two years ago, when Goodell signed a five-year contract extension that runs through 2024, league communications executive Joe Lockhart said Goodell intended to retire as commissioner by the completion of the deal. Goodell’s incentive-laden extension, completed over the objections of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, could be worth as much as $40 million annually. Several owners said then they had been told by Goodell that his exit could come even sooner, once the new CBA and TV deals are completed.
Some owners say now they believe Goodell, who turns 61 in February, will stick to that. They have contemplated a commissioner search in which Brian Rolapp, the NFL’s chief media and business officer, would be the early favorite. That could make for a seamless transition similar to when Tagliabue, soon after completing a new CBA, handed off to Goodell in 2006.
Some Goodell associates, however, aren’t certain he will leave so soon.
“I’m a bit of a contrarian on this: Other than the public pressure on Roger, the guy has had a phenomenal run,” one of them said recently. “So why do you step away? … Tell me what Roger Goodell is going to do when he retires. No one can answer that question. I could be wrong. He could punch out. But I think he goes on.”
It’s ‘up to him’
The knock came around 5:20 p.m. on Aug. 8, 2006. Goodell had been on lockdown in his Chicago-area hotel room, registered under the pseudonym Roger Washington, and distracting himself with work while the owners voted. “Fortunately I’d just put my pants on,” Goodell said that day.
The person at the door was Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Rooney grinned, and he and Goodell hugged. The owners had elected Goodell as the NFL’s third commissioner since 1960, following the long-serving Pete Rozelle and Tagliabue, entrusting a former league-office intern with the nation’s most prosperous professional sport.
The wide-eyed optimism of that day has given way to harsh realities in the years since.
Goodell has presided over the Spygate, Bountygate and Deflategate scandals. He has seen the NFLPA go to federal court to challenge his disciplinary rulings in cases involving New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott. He has faced sharp criticism for the league’s handling of domestic violence, particularly the 2014 case involving Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. He was on the receiving end of barbs from President Trump over players’ protests during the national anthem. He oversaw a lockout and a $1 billion settlement with players who sued over the effects of head injuries.
Goodell’s public visibility has declined over time. Long gone are the days when he might show up in the back of a press box on game day to interact with reporters. Some of those who know him say he became increasingly distrustful of the media as criticism mounted and less willing to engage based on a growing conviction that he simply couldn’t win.
At the draft, one of his most direct interactions with fans each year, he regularly faces heavy boos from the crowd.
“I think he’s a good guy,” the Goodell associate said. “His public perception and his private perception are at odds. And that’s partially his fault.”
The answer to the question of whether Goodell has had enough of being commissioner depends, that person said, on when it’s being asked. He may have had enough during the Rice case, in which Goodell acknowledged that the NFL’s initial two-game suspension was insufficient, or at the height of the anthem debate in the fall of 2017. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he will have had enough when the CBA and TV deals are done.
“He doesn’t know any other life,” the Goodell associate said. “What’s he going to substitute for this? Do nothing? Run for office? … I think Roger will get this deal, focus on new media and things like that, and start a succession plan. And that will take five years or so. I think he goes on.”
The league declined to make Goodell available to be interviewed about his current views about retirement. One person familiar with the NFL’s inner workings said Goodell remains as engaged and energetic as ever in his hands-on involvement with league operations. He remains a regular at the gym and in line for the salad bar at lunch. He is constantly on the phone with owners and is said to be highly skilled at handling those sensitive conversations.
“Internally he’s showing no signs of looking to move on,” that person said. “Nothing escapes him.”
Goodell never has said publicly that he intends to retire by the end of this contract extension. He quickly distanced himself from Lockhart’s public comments in late 2017, saying no decision had been made. When he was asked about it in January 2018, he said: “I’m going to fulfill this contract and do the best I possibly can, and we will worry about that another day. You might also have to talk to my wife about that."
But some owners have begun to consider what the next steps would be if Goodell steps aside.
“We have to be prepared,” one said at the mid-October owners’ meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “He’s certainly welcome to continue on. That’s up to him. But we can’t be caught unprepared if he decides to go.”
In August, Goodell sat in his Manhattan office, high above Park Avenue, and spoke about the NFL’s just-completed entertainment and social justice partnership with music mogul Shawn Carter, also known as Jay-Z. Goodell knew what he wanted the focus to be.
“It’s about making our entertainment better,” he said. “It’s about appealing to a broader audience, particularly younger demographics.”
It wasn’t, in Goodell’s view, about the controversy over players protesting during the anthem.
But Goodell and Carter faced questions about protests and Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who began the movement and later reached a settlement with the NFL after accusing the league and owners of colluding to keep him off the field.
It was representative of the challenge Goodell, who is said to have been hopeful a team would sign Kaepernick, faces in his role. Owners pay him handsomely to make them money while also making any image problems disappear. But the NFL is a big and inviting target. The league’s missteps, in the view of many observers, have contributed heavily to that. Fans and media members hold Goodell, as the public face of the league, accountable for stumbles, both real and perceived.
That often has been true for the players and for their union as well. DeMaurice Smith, the NFLPA’s executive director, told the crowd at a union gala in 2016 that Goodell couldn’t attend because “lying, cheating and stealing is a full-time job.” Kaepernick said following his Nov. 16 workout for teams at an Atlanta-area high school that he will get his next NFL opportunity when Goodell and the owners “stop running from the truth, stop running from the people.”
But Goodell improved his relationship with some players by working directly with a group of them on a social justice initiative in late 2017. Any acrimony with the NFLPA has been far less evident during this labor negotiation. And the only votes that count when it comes to the commissioner’s job security are those of the owners.
If Goodell does retire, there will be no shortage of candidates to replace him. There could be support for a football candidate such as Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations. There could be outsiders considered, such as Anthony Noto, the NFL’s former chief financial officer who is now the chief executive officer of SoFi, a finance company; and Kevin Warren, the incoming commissioner of the Big Ten Conference who is the former chief operating officer of the Minnesota Vikings. There has been speculation in the past about Condoleezza Rice, the former U.S. secretary of state. If history is any guide, the owners probably would settle on Rolapp.
But first, there is meaningful work to be done. Progress in the labor negotiations has raised hopes that a new CBA could be completed by the end of the postseason. TV ratings are up for a second straight season, and the owners are counting on securing another set of highly lucrative network deals, likely bolstered by greatly increased income from streaming rights.
If Goodell secures labor peace and guarantees ongoing wealth from broadcasting deals, he will have done his job well in the view of the owners. What happens after that is Goodell’s call.
“I assume he’s leaving because that’s what was said a couple years ago,” the owner said in Fort Lauderdale. “But you never know, I guess. It just depends on how he feels about it when that time arrives.”