This article was updated Thursday with the news of a U.S. District Court judge’s decision nullifying Tom Brady’s suspension and the NFL’s appeal.
Goodell months earlier had imposed sweeping discipline on New Orleans Saints coaches, players and an executive in response to a program that allegedly rewarded players for inflicting injuries on opponents. When players appealed, dragging a messy scandal into the regular season, Goodell appointed Tagliabue to issue a ruling. Tagliabue’s decision in December 2012 mostly agreed with Goodell’s findings — but, in hopes of avoiding further litigation by the players, he overturned the players’ suspensions.
Goodell wasn’t happy. He expected his discipline to be upheld to the letter and was willing to draw out “BountyGate” as long as it took to secure a victory. Tagliabue felt that prolonging the matter even one day was counterproductive and potentially damaging to the league.
“Enough is enough,” Tagliabue told Goodell, according to an individual familiar with their conversation, but Goodell didn’t see it that way. The men haven’t spoken much since.
That scene, according to interviews with more than two dozen people who have worked with, negotiated against, or otherwise spent significant time around the most powerful man in American sports, was classic Goodell: He wanted a victory for the league — or at least the appearance of one — and the team owners who employ him. Anything less was unacceptable and seen as a direct hit on the commissioner’s authority.
“Good is not good enough,” a former league office colleague said of the kind of outcome Goodell pursues. “It’s got to be perfect.”
Goodell, 56, has spent the past 12 months explaining — often clumsily — crisis after crisis, deflecting the occasional call for him to resign. As he did three years ago, the commissioner has again dug in his heels: this time involving deflated footballs and the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, whose owner, Robert Kraft, is one of Goodell’s closest allies. “DeflateGate” has entered its ninth month and advanced to federal court, and even with a new season set to begin, Goodell seems unwilling to accept anything less than total victory, in this case upholding his four-game suspension of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Even after a federal district court in New York vacated Brady’s suspension on Thursday, a major loss for the NFL and its commissioner, the league was quick to promise an appeal — guaranteeing that another controversy will carry into the regular season. “The commissioner’s responsibility to secure the competitive fairness of our game is a paramount principle,” an NFL-issued statement read, “and the league and our 32 clubs will continue to pursue a path to that end.”
The son of a former U.S. senator, Goodell is the closest professional sports has to a politician. He is versatile and talented and stubborn, and he learned as a young man in Washington — a city driven by the wielding of power and distribution of favors — that higher office is only as secure as his supporters’ faith in him. In Goodell’s case it is the owners of the 31 privately held NFL franchises. Indeed, Goodell runs NFL ownership like a politician works an unwieldy caucus: There are those he can count on and others who will cause headaches. Some are more engaged and influential than others. The real trick is keeping everyone happy — and in line.
Goodell is an expert at managing up, and he has learned that the key to succeeding — and, more recently, surviving — in a sprawling and complicated business is by identifying and leaning on the “four or five owners that Roger uses to run the league,” one NFL executive said. “Everyone else is irrelevant or unheard.”
Goodell has spent every day of his career working for the NFL and is a true creature of its culture. He’s been at it long enough to know that certain owners — in his case Kraft, Dallas’s Jerry Jones, the New York Giants’ John Mara, Carolina’s Jerry Richardson and Pittsburgh’s Art and Dan Rooney — can be powerful allies. They are active in league politics, men of interest and influence in a vast corporation expected this year to reach about $12 billion in revenue, the kinds of figures capable of guiding an ambitious NFL intern through three decades and eventually make him commissioner.
“He has spent a lifetime preparing himself to be the commissioner,” Jones said last month at an NFL owners meeting outside Chicago.
Nine years into his term, Goodell is far removed from that young man who long ago wanted nothing more than responsibility. His refusal to back down against Kraft might be a short-term strategy or a long-term message to other owners. Regardless, Goodell is using that practiced acumen to do the one thing in politics more difficult than reaching power: maintaining a grip on it.
He spent part of his childhood in Northwest Washington, not far from the National Cathedral, accompanying his father, Charles, on the campaign trail and playing with kids whose names carried weight on Capitol Hill: Udall and Mondale.
Young Roger experienced the best and worst of politics as a boy. But in part because of the way it ended for his dad, he grew up with aspirations beyond entering the family business. He was 22 when he wrote the first of 40 letters to the NFL. “I have always desired a career in the NFL,” Goodell typed in a July 2, 1981, letter to Commissioner Pete Rozelle. He went on to write to each of the 28 teams at the time and any other league property with a potential job.
Somewhere amid the rejection letters was an offer for a three-month internship in the league office in New York, and almost as soon as he started, he began jockeying for more to do. “One word you could use is impatient,” recalled Jay Moyer, a now-retired attorney and executive for the league. “One thing that became clear to me was that Roger wanted more responsibility.”
Goodell, who declined an interview request for this story through a league spokesman, spent those earliest months answering fan phone lines and, working in the public relations department, responding to basic media questions. He took a one-year internship with the New York Jets, making the one-hour drive before sunrise to make copies for coaches and reporters, finishing each assignment before badgering the Jets’ PR man, Frank Ramos, for a new task.
“Everything was: ‘Give me more to do,’ ” Ramos said. “ ‘I can do this; I can do that. You want me to call so and so? You want me to do this? I can get that done.’ ”
He returned to the league office in 1984, agreeing to fill in sometimes as Rozelle’s driver, and when the NFL set up a hotline for college players and their families, it was Goodell’s warm, friendly voice on the recording. He was outspoken in meetings and confident in his value, arguing with Moyer once over the paltriness of his pay raise. “Pay your dues,” Moyer told the young staffer, but Goodell was in much too big a hurry for that.
Goodell’s ambitions and personality were on full display, but because he was trying to make his own name instead of playing on his father’s, he kept some things to himself.
Charles Goodell had been, during Roger’s youth, a promising Republican who had been appointed a New York senator in 1968, filling the seat vacated when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. The elder Goodell, seen as a loyalist, had been created by the party; by 1970 his own people were destroying him. Against the Nixon administration’s wishes, Goodell had boldly spoken out against U.S. involvement in Vietnam — an act of rebellion against the White House. Republicans made sure Goodell would never hold another office; in fact, the experience had been so painful that he never again pursued one.
Roger Goodell’s league office colleagues knew the story, some believing his dad’s fall from grace steered the young man away from a career in politics. But others noticed a few inherited skills. “He has his father’s political genes,” Joe Browne, the league’s longest-serving employee and a senior adviser to Goodell, wrote in an e-mail.
This was one of the things Tagliabue liked about Goodell after Tagliabue succeeded Rozelle as commissioner in 1989. The young man could get along with most anyone, brokering agreements no matter the key players’ backgrounds. “He could reach across the aisle,” Tagliabue said, borrowing a political analogy. “That’s one of his great skills.”
An NFL executive by age 31, Goodell was put in charge of international development and, later, of club relations and expansion. He was, more simply, Tagliabue’s point man when it came to dealing with team owners on these matters, a young power broker referred to as “boy wonder” in 1993 by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Goodell spent time at team facilities and learned the figures involved in league politics — the “key owners,” as Tagliabue put it. Goodell spent time with Dan Rooney, the Steelers’ owner who would later be named U.S. ambassador to Ireland, on the potential of moving a franchise overseas. Goodell worked closely with Wellington and John Mara, one of a fading number of NFL legacy families, and shared a respect for the league’s traditions. He grew close with Richardson as a new franchise was awarded to Charlotte, and with Kraft in the mid-1990s as the Patriots remained in the Boston area and construction on a new stadium began in 2000. When Jones antagonized the NFL over franchises’ entitlement to apparel licensing revenues, it was Goodell who understood the Cowboys owner’s argument and presented it within the league office.
In Goodell, the NFL’s most powerful owners had an executive who hadn’t just gotten to know them; he recognized the subjects closest to their hearts. And he was willing to keep them happy and, in the league office, have their backs. In 2006, a few of them would return the favor.
Tagliabue was stepping down after 17 years as commissioner, and an eight-person committee — Richardson, Dan Rooney, Jones and Kraft among the members — would select his replacement. As he had done as a 22-year-old, Goodell — who by then was the league’s executive vice president and chief operating officer — sat down that August and began to write. On the ninth and final page of his speech to NFL owners, he outlined reasons why he should become commissioner: “I live and breathe the league — your league,” he wrote.
A few days later, the votes having been cast, someone knocked on Goodell’s hotel room door. He opened it and saw Rooney, standing there with a smile.
Goodell had a strange way of thanking Rooney: Eight weeks after assuming his new office, the new commissioner hit the Steelers owner with a $25,000 fine for publicly criticizing game officials.
But it wasn’t meant as just routine discipline. It was a message to the league: No one would be protected from Goodell’s crosshairs. “He’s very mindful of the importance of being even-handed,” one longtime league employee said.
After two seasons, Goodell was already making his mark on a changing NFL. He had issued a dozen player suspensions, more than in Tagliabue’s final five years as commissioner, and was determined to curb a reputation of lawlessness that had surrounded the league. DeAngelo Hall, at the time an Atlanta Falcons cornerback, called Goodell the “sheriff”; the Orlando Sentinel in 2008 floated a loftier title: potential presidential candidate, an ambition Goodell’s father, who died in 1987, never had the chance to pursue.
He was featured on a 2012 cover of Time magazine, the words “THE ENFORCER” emblazoned in red type over a stately portrait of Goodell, who had said frequently since becoming commissioner that his job was to protect the integrity of the game and the NFL’s symbolic “shield.”
Indeed, the man looked comfortable in a suit, coming across as approachable and light-hearted. More important, he kept his 31 bosses happy as Goodell’s corporate leveraging — which some believe was directly tied to the league’s cleaner image — led to the average value of each NFL team swelling from $897 million in 2006, according to Forbes magazine, to $1.43 billion in 2015. Overall league revenue, which was about $6 billion when Goodell took over, has doubled; the commissioner in 2010 told owners that, by 2027, he had a larger number in mind: $25 billion. Goodell’s pay — determined annually by an owner-led compensation committee — grew as a result: roughly $11 million in his first year, ballooning to more than $44 million in 2012 and $35 million in 2013.
Still, there were dissidents. James Harrison, the Steelers linebacker who has been fined a total of $150,000 since 2010, referred to Goodell as a “crook and a puppet” in a 2011 interview with Men’s Journal. Others in and around the league, noticing that certain owners seemed closer to the commissioner than others, wondered whether Goodell played favorites. The perception was underscored in 2007, when Goodell penalized Kraft’s Patriots for videotaping an opposing team’s signals: stripped draft picks, a combined $750,000 in fines — but no suspensions, leading some to wonder if the commissioner had taken it easy on Kraft’s franchise. The league office adamantly denied any favoritism was involved.
In 2012, the Washington Redskins were docked $36 million in potential spending for illegally manipulating the salary cap. Mike Shanahan, Washington’s head coach at the time, would say later that the team — whose owner, Daniel Snyder, is neither involved in league politics nor especially close with Goodell — was notified less than an hour before free agency began, effectively wrecking the team’s offseason plans without recourse. The Cowboys, whose owner, Jones, is within Goodell’s innermost circle, were penalized $10 million for similar violations, but nonetheless Shanahan couldn’t help but wonder if a team owned by a Goodell ally would have at least had a chance to explain.
“The worst fine in the history of the league without giving a team the chance to defend themselves?” Shanahan said. “That’s when you say there’s something wrong. Would he have done that to whoever? I don’t know.”
Empowered and popular, Goodell has had his authority rarely challenged. He had reached a mountaintop he’d pursued for more than two decades. But at some point, scandals and the NFL’s occasionally bizarre reaction to them — player concussions, the Patriots’ videotaping controversy, the 2011 player lockout, the Saints’ alleged bounty program, a lockout of game officials, a series of domestic violence cases punctuated by an incident involving former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice — led the proactive, approachable commissioner to give way to a man frequently in a defensive posture, scrambling to project a league in control.
“All the owners are looking at him,” one former team executive said, and after Judge Richard Berman’s ruling in favor of Brady on Thursday, owners might be looking more closely than ever at Goodell’s next move.
If a proposal was rejected or a decision skirted, Goodell’s default response by 2011 was to hunker down — or to explode. During collective bargaining negotiations with the NFL Players Association in 2011, Goodell’s face turned red so often that union representatives often spent mornings predicting which of the day’s topics would send the commissioner over the edge.
“That’s what I remember: ‘I bet he’s going to turn red when he hears this,’ ” said a former NFL player who was involved in the discussions. A few times, the former player said, Goodell would storm out of the meeting room, leaving a few franchise owners — often Kraft, Richardson and Jones — to resume negotiations while Goodell cooled off.
During Tagliabue’s time as commissioner, he preferred quietly settling disputes with franchises or the union, often agreeing to compromises so that the sides could move on. “All’s well that ends well” wasn’t how Tagliabue ran his league. He preferred a variation of that saying: “All’s well that ends.”
“The perfect is the enemy of the good,” said Tagliabue, who oversaw an occasionally renegade league but nonetheless presided over 17 years of labor peace.
The league office under Goodell seems to favor an approach taken from a political campaign playbook: taking the temperature of ideas through media leaks, extensive polling and third-party data gathering. Crises often become endurance tests waged in the public sphere.
For nearly seven months in 2011, labor negotiations (leading to the first work stoppage since 1987) dominated headlines. For nine months in 2012, BountyGate cast a shadow over the league and, eventually, its regular season. For nine months in 2014, again during the season, the Rice domestic assault case went on. For eight months (and counting) in 2015, DeflateGate has lingered — Goodell refusing to let go as he plays defense for the league again.
“That obsessive, compulsive commitment to doing what’s right for the shield and for the image of the NFL,” the former executive said. “There are times where you have to make that kind of decision. But you don’t have to make that kind of decision all the time.”
Goodell wore a dark suit Monday morning as he entered Federal District Court in Manhattan for the third time in a month, his final appearance before Judge Berman issued his ruling. This visit was no different from the first two. Goodell wasn’t ready to give in.
Thirty-two weeks have passed since the AFC championship game, when the Patriots were found to have used partially deflated footballs in a victory over the Indianapolis Colts. Since then, the controversy has advanced and escalated: the more than $2.5 million investigation commissioned by the league, Goodell himself presiding over the players’ union’s appeal on Brady’s behalf, into Judge Berman’s court, and now as the NFL redoubles its pursuit of a victory in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
“I was wrong to put my faith in the league,” Kraft told reporters in late July.
Kraft is upset, but he is said to view Goodell like a son — and therefore isn’t expected to hold a grudge. Besides, in league politics, an owner’s loyalties ultimately lie with the commissioner, not a player — even one as connected to the NFL and his team as Brady.
As for Goodell, Kraft is a longtime ally, but he is only one. The others, league insiders have speculated, are likely leaning in to measure where the commissioner’s loyalties truly lie: with one owner — whose franchise has earned resentment in part by winning four Super Bowls since the 2001 season — or with the league itself. “Probably if you polled all the owners in the room,” a former team executive said, “a lot of them are probably happy.”
One franchise owner said that despite the challenges of the past year, there is “universal support” for Goodell as commissioner. “Overall,” the owner said, “everybody thinks he’s doing a very good job in a very, very challenging environment.”
Charles Goodell spent his final 16 years bouncing from Washington to New York, from lawyer to lobbyist, from a man who spent the 1970s losing his career and first marriage to one who spent his final decade of life trying to rediscover his footing. “He never regretted the decision he made,” Roger Goodell included in his remarks to NFL owners in August 2006 as they prepared to elect a new commissioner.
But those who know the former senator’s ambitious middle son wonder now if Roger Goodell is at a similar crossroads — and whether, unlike his dad, he’ll do anything to stay on the good side of the powerful people who brought him to this point. “It’s like Roger thinks: ‘I may win, I may lose,’ ” one acquaintance said. “‘But I’m never going to lose in a way that my own people cut my throat.’”
Nine years ago this week, Goodell moved into the commissioner’s office, six blocks away from where he once worked as an intern so many years earlier. He was an idealist, the same as his dad, moving into an office whose layout had — despite new buildings and changing times — remained the same since 1960.
He personalized the wall by hanging two framed pages of the Congressional Record from September 1969, when a politician made his stand, not willing to give in: “Mr. President, the war drags on,” the commissioner’s father once said. “ . . . It seems to know no end.”