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A Principled Politician

Roger Goodell Leads the NFL Through Tumultuous Times

Before he led the nation’s most popular sports league, before he locked out players and before he locked out the referees, before linebacker James Harrison could call him a “crook” or the “devil,” Roger Goodell was a young boy growing up in Northwest Washington, D.C., who fell asleep cradling a football each night. He had a paper route. He played sports after school. He went to RFK Stadium with his family on Sundays to cheer for Sonny and Sam and the rest of the Redskins.

While having Washington in your DNA normally might be a mere biographical footnote, it’s central to understanding how the most powerful man in U.S. sports operates. It’s why he can be a successful politician in a sporting arena but also an unconventional one who continually forsakes popularity on moral grounds.

As Goodell heads to New Orleans for the Super Bowl, the NFL commissioner finds the league in a remarkable situation: Its condition depends almost entirely on the view of the observer. Only the sixth commissioner the NFL has ever known, Goodell leads at a 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.

“I think that’s why Roger leads the way he does,” said George Mitrovich, the senator’s former press secretary. “I think he’s hugely influenced by his father’s life and instructed by his father’s principles.”

When Goodell graduated from Washington & Jefferson College in 1981, he wrote a letter to his father that read: “If there is one thing I want to accomplish in life besides becoming commissioner of the NFL, it is to make you proud of me.” His father wrote back: “Feel your own pressure. Your own is sufficient.”

Goodell was practically born into politics. He was just 3 months old when Charles Goodell won a special election in May 1959 to fill an empty New York seat in the U.S. House. The family soon took up full-time residence in Washington, settling into a modest home near Cleveland Park that was busting at the seams with five young boys, a Great Dane, two cats, a parakeet, a father who worked long hours and a mother who tried to maintain order amid the chaos.

The boys — Goodell was the middle child — would walk or bike to nearby John Eaton Elementary and after school take refuge at the Macomb Playground. They played with the children of other elected officials, such as the Mondales and Udalls.

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 and riots spread across Washington, Charles Goodell ran home and insisted the family’s maid, Pearline, stay the night because it wasn’t safe to leave. Roger Goodell delivered the Washington Evening Star after school and had to rush his delivery because of a city-wide curfew, pedaling past the Marines and National Guard members stationed on the corner.

“Washington in the ’60s was going through some difficult times, where there was antiwar movements, civil rights — those were big issues,” Goodell recalled. “Having that opportunity to be exposed to that and be in Washington was really influential to me.”

There were perks to being a congressman’s son, of course. The annual congressional baseball game was played at RFK Stadium immediately before a Washington Senators game. Ted Williams managed the Republicans, and the Goodell children served as batboys. And while the Goodells would participate in Easter egg hunts at the White House, their mother, Jean, also took them to antiwar demonstrations on the Mall.

As the 1960s drew to a close, their lives became increasingly affected by the Vietnam war, as their father began contemplating a break from his party.

In Congress, Charles Goodell had accumulated power in relatively short order. President Richard Nixon praised him as the Republican party’s resident “egghead,” and he was widely considered one of the brightest minds on Capitol Hill. When Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller appointed him to the vacant Senate seat.

Republican party leaders didn’t know it at the time, but Goodell was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

“He didn’t want political advice — if you’re against the war, you’ll alienate this constituency or that constituency,” said Andrew Von Hirsch, the senator’s chief legislative assistant at the time. “What he wanted us to do was describe the issues on the merits, and not worry about who you’d offend. That seemed very different from ordinary politicians.”

Goodell introduced a bill to withdraw support for the war in 1969, three years before a similar measure passed. The decision alienated him from his own party, drawing the ire of Nixon and Vice President Agnew. Politically, it was a terrible time to rock the boat.

“We’d say to my dad, ‘Why’d you do that?’ ” Tim Goodell, Roger’s older brother, recalled. “ ‘You could’ve played along with Nixon, you would’ve been reelected and had six more years of security.’ He said he couldn’t stand any more lives being lost.”

Many powerful Republicans threw their support behind James Buckley, who won the Senate seat running as a member of the Conservative Party.

“He lost his political career he loved so very dearly,” Goodell recounted at a 2010 commencement address at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. “But what did he retain? Something much bigger: his principles, his integrity, his character.”

The 1970 election proved to be devastating to Goodell’s family, which left Washington with harsh, but enduring, lessons.

Roger Goodell had hopes of playing football at Washington & Jefferson, a small liberal arts school south of Pittsburgh. But though he tore a knee ligament before his freshman year and never played the sport again, Goodell wasn’t willing to give up on football.

The high school jock began focusing more on his studies. Despite working the late shift at a town bar, Goodell was still ever-present in his 8 a.m. American government class. As graduation neared, one of Goodell’s political science professors, Joseph DiSarro, tried to persuade him that law school or business school would be the most prudent step. Goodell, an economics major, said he preferred going to the NFL.

“I hope not as a player,” DiSarro told him.

Goodell wrote letters to every NFL team and the league office in New York. He landed an internship in Commissioner Pete Rozelle’s office and started a slow climb up the NFL ladder.

“I think you’d be hard-pressed to find one person who didn’t respect and like Roger and see a lot of potential in him when he was in his 20s,” said Jim Irsay, the Indianapolis Colts’ owner.

Working in the background, Goodell handled matters large and small, and it was clear he would not be following his father’s footsteps to law school any time soon. He negotiated with TV networks, Fortune 500 companies and governments at all levels.

“I knew very quickly he was going to end up in the position that he holds today,” said Joe Ellis, who worked with Goodell in the league office and is now the Denver Broncos’ team president.

When Commissioner Paul Tagliabue decided to retire in 2006, Goodell’s name was on the short list of favorites to assume the NFL’s top position, but he wasn’t everyone’s immediate preference. It took six votes before all 32 owners agreed on Goodell.

“When we chose him, I think everyone felt it was the best decision,” Kraft said. “I don’t think anyone believed that he would hold his own the way he has.”

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 lockout and 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.

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.”

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.”