There are few positions in world sport more powerful or influential than that of Commissioner of the National Football League. Paul Trow tracks down the man who has run the show for the past seven years and discovers he has no intention of letting loose the reins just yet, especially with so much unfinished business on his plate.
Nobody ever said being commissioner of the $10 billion juggernaut that is the NFL was an easy assignment. And when, prior to the 2006 season, Roger Goodell ascended to what is surely the most turbulent hot seat in sport, he did so with his eyes open and nigh on a quarter of a century of almost unbroken service to the organization behind him.
Since then there’s been quite a lot of firefighting on numerous fronts. To name but a few, these have included a labor dispute with referees, a lockout by franchise owners in 2011, disciplinary face-offs with numerous coaches, and wrangles over players’ off-field transgressions, on-field tackling techniques and, more recently, their attitudes towards performance-enhancing drugs.
Goodell, who has codified his vision of player behavior into the NFL Personal Conduct Policy, is also on a mission to give football a greater global reach, of which the staging of regular season games in London, England is very much a key element.
On the eve of the second NFL game of the 2013 season to be staged in front of nearly 84,000 spectators at Wembley Stadium, where the San Francisco 49ers trounced “host” team Jacksonville Jaguars 42-10, Goodell announced a significant escalation of the “London project” for 2014. “We’re going to have three games during the regular season here next year. Jacksonville Jaguars will host the Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons will host the Detroit Lions, and Oakland Raiders will host Miami Dolphins,” he said. “We have an exclusive deal with Wembley that runs till 2016. We’re trying to expose more fans to the NFL. Fans in the United Kingdom want more and I certainly don’t rule out a franchise here eventually. Initially it was difficult to get teams to play in London, but every team that’s come over has had a great experience and now more want to come than we can accommodate.
“The visits are certainly good for the communities that are served by the teams. For instance, far more people over in the UK have now heard of Jacksonville.
“In the future we could also take games to cities like Beijing, Moscow and Frankfurt. We’re trying to globalize our game but we’re not attacking the globe all at once. We need to build markets and stimulate media and sponsor activity. It’s not played on a global basis like soccer and basketball yet. That’s why our strategy is different to other sports.
“Closer to home, I’d also love [the NFL] to be back in Los Angeles. But it has to be done the right way. I want to have both [franchises in London and LA], but it doesn’t matter which one is first.”
Another of Goodell’s campaigns has been to make the game less brutal. Even before the NFL agreed to pay $765 million in an out-of-court settlement of concussion-related lawsuits by 4,500 former players just before the start of the current season—a serious business and public relations threat if ever there was one—Goodell had introduced stricter penalties for helmet-to-helmet tackles.
“We’re working really hard to eliminate these. We’re continually updating our medical advice and getting back to basics in terms of teaching players—right down to the youth game—how to tackle with the right technique. In that respect there are a few things that we’ve learned from the game of rugby, which is one my favorite sports.
“Of course, we have to pay regard to the fact that people want to see physical contact, but you can take out the dangerous tackle without diminishing physicality. We believe in making our sport safer, and we’re always willing to share [information] with other sports.
“Over the years we’ve looked at our rules and strengthened them. At times players still choose to violate them but nowadays they get caught. Concussions arise when a player is defenseless and can’t protect himself. And we should always remember that the helmet is designed as protection, not as a weapon.
“We’ve done a tremendous amount to reduce concussions, but they happen from time to time in every walk of life. Most sports-related concussions happen away from the football field—in playgrounds and on ski slopes, for instance. Also, soccer has the second highest incidence of concussions in U.S. sport.
“There’s a lot we don’t know medically about head injuries even though we have supporters like General Electric who enable us to create more research. But the physical nature of the game is still incredibly high. You wouldn’t want to be out there. These guys are bigger, stronger and more athletic than average folks.”
By now it’s apparent that Goodell wasn’t seeking a quiet life when he first went to work for the NFL as an administrative intern in the league’s New York City office in 1982. He joined the New York Jets briefly the following year, also as an intern, but within 12 months he was back working for the NFL in the public relations department.
In 1987, he was appointed assistant to American Football Conference president Lamar Hunt. Then, under the tutelage of Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, he filled a variety of football and business operations roles, culminating with his appointment as the NFL’s Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer in December 2001. As COO, he took responsibility for the league’s football operations and officiating, and supervised its business functions. He headed NFL Ventures, which oversees the league’s business units, including media properties, marketing and sales, stadium development and strategic planning. He was also heavily involved in the launch of the NFL Network TV channel and negotiating the league’s current collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players’ Association.
Goodell’s selection as the NFL’s ninth Commissioner following Tagliabue’s retirement came as no surprise, but it was far from a fait accompli. Tagliabue initiated a wide-ranging search for his successor, appointing a committee headed by Pittsburgh Steelers’ owner Dan Rooney. Goodell was one of five finalists and it took five ballots of the 32 owners before he secured the number of votes he needed (22) to see off the NFL’s outside counsel, Gregg Levy. When asked about having to endure such a lengthy and labyrinthine process, he quipped: “They’ll need at least as many ballots to fire me!”
As Commissioner, Goodell believes his role is about protecting the integrity of the game and making it safer—“protecting the shield,” as he once put it, referring to the NFL’s shield logo. But he’s not afraid to tread where his eight predecessors didn’t.
Take, for example, the forthcoming Super Bowl XLVIII (48) on February 2, 2014, the first to be held outdoors (non-domed) in a cold-weather environment, in this case the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., home to both the New York Giants and the New York Jets. “Some of our most exciting games are played in the elements,” Goodell insists. “To date we’ve not seen as much interest in the Super Bowl as we have this season. We can only get 56,000 spectators into the stadium, so hundreds of thousands of people will be watching it live on screens in Times Square, and the city is closing down 14 boulevards five days in advance. The passion for the occasion transcends the game. The Super Bowl has now moved well beyond a simple event. It’s a week of events. We are continually creating more in order to satisfy the demand.”
Goodell, who will be 55 in February, was born in Jamestown, New York, one of five sons of the late Senator Charles Goodell, a Republican who publicly opposed the Nixon administration’s conduct of the Vietnam War in 1970 and paid for his principled stand with political obliteration.
Roger graduated from Bronxville High School where he captained the football, basketball and baseball teams as a senior and was named the school’s athlete of the year. He then suffered a knee injury at 18 that in effect ended his football career before he had even enrolled at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania, whence he graduated with a degree in economics. “It was the sort of thing that could have been fixed today by keyhole surgery but such techniques didn’t exist back then. It meant I wasn’t able to play college football, something I deeply regret.” Perhaps his concerns about player safety stem largely from this chastening experience.
Goodell, who is married to former Fox News Channel anchor Jane Skinner, is a keen but only occasional golfer. None the less he still plays off a handicap of 8, no mean feat considering he is a member of two exclusive clubs with courses that are among the toughest in the game: Pine Valley and Augusta National. “I started playing in junior high, but then I didn’t play for about seven years. To be honest I don’t play anything like enough, so there’s no chance of me improving. I’ve got 12-year-old twin daughters and a lot of my time at weekends is devoted to them.”
He also has four brothers, one of whom, Michael, who is gay, he fiercely protected from bullies as they were growing up. Michael, who is younger than Roger, is reported as saying: “I was the type who would have been beat up a lot. It would have been humiliating. What would that have meant if I didn’t survive it? Would I have done drugs? There are all sorts of things you can turn to because of self-hatred and loathing. But none of that was even a possibility, because I had this support around me. So, yeah, Roger is very much a hero figure for me.”
No doubt Commissioner Goodell will be similarly supportive when a current NFL player finally comes out as gay.
Other issues, however, will not be handled on such a broad-minded basis. For one, he is determined to clamp down on performance-enhancing drugs, especially of the human-growth-hormone (HGH) variety that are boosting some players’ weight beyond 320lbs. “We’ve been the leaders in testing but we have to upgrade even further. We’ve got to sort out the HGH issue. We should be testing for it soon and I’d be naïve to think we don’t have a problem. We need a solid program with complete integrity to deter people from taking it. We think it’s important for several reasons: the integrity of the sport, the safety of the players and the message we as a sport are sending to the kids. We certainly don’t want to send the wrong message and players certainly don’t want to be playing against someone who has acquired an unfair advantage.”
Then there’s betting. “We prohibit players, administrators and coaches from being involved in betting on games. We want our fans to see what’s happening on the field and not be in any doubt. We want people to feel there’s no outside influence on the players, that they are playing their best. The only gaming link we have is at a few stadiums where casinos can advertise.”
Goodell was quick to dismiss a suggestion that the NFL Network was subject to any editorial control, and he underlined that every player and coach is obliged to talk to the press. What would he do if someone didn’t fancy that particular task? “I don’t care if he fancies it. I just care that he does it. Going into locker rooms works for us because it’s good for the fans. Players and coaches need to speak to the media because this is how they connect to the fans. Most of them realize how important it is. The press is free to criticize us and that’s their right. At the end of the day we all respond to criticism one way or another and hope we get better.”
These days, no one can deny that the NFL is the dominant U.S. sport, but why? “Three reasons I believe. Firstly, the game itself—it’s exciting and full of strategy. There’s physical contact and also pageantry. Secondly, it’s explosive and excites the passions. And thirdly, it’s bringing communities together in a way that some sports can’t. Every team needs its local community’s help and support; after all, hope for success is a great thing. Take the case of Kansas City Chiefs. They clocked up only two wins the whole of last season and then they started this one 7 for 0. That grabs people’s attention and they want to be part of it, want to make each event bigger and better.
“We’re always looking at devising more ways for fans to follow football and engage with the sport. For instance, female fans are a big part of our fan base, probably 45 percent. It’s the first thing I look at when I go to matches, how many of the fans in the stadiums are female. I love it in Dallas where they’re always screaming, really engaged!”
Looking into the distant future, Goodell doesn’t fear disruption to the NFL season if soccer’s 2022 World Cup in Qatar is staged over the winter months due to the likelihood of extreme heat in the Gulf state during the summer. “I don’t see that being a problem. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi start four days after the next Super Bowl and that isn’t affecting us at all. However, I still worry about everything that might have an adverse effect—there’s nothing I don’t worry about that might undermine the success of our sport.”
So he’s principled, authoritative, efficient… and a bag of nerves. No wonder he’s a golfer! But even though his football career ended at a ludicrously premature stage, it’s clear he had already absorbed the life lessons it had to offer.
“Football is an athletic team game and the things I have learned from playing it I use in my job every day. It was the best training of all.”