“You can never assume you have all the answers,” a 47-year-old Goodell said on Sept. 6, 2006, five days after succeeding Paul Tagliabue as commissioner of America’s most popular sports league.
These were the words of a nice guy: down to earth, inclusive and approachable. Sure, Goodell might suspend a player as he began cleaning up the league’s image and defend its “shield,” but he would first invite the player to New York for a chat — and, often at the end, a hug.
Goodell has now been commissioner for a decade, and his tenure has been marked by remarkable growth and considerable turmoil. He has developed an edge, and Goodell’s public image is so poor the league office itself isn’t sure how to rehabilitate it. He is perhaps the most unpopular figure in sports, and at times he seems to have finally embraced his role as a villain. At the #NFL draft this past April, boos raining down on Goodell now something of a tradition, the commissioner looked into the crowd and raised his arms. “Come on,” he said. “Bring it on.”
As his second decade as commissioner begins this week, there is a fact about Goodell that cannot be denied: If these past 10 years were a competition, like him or not, he has won. He made enemies and ruffled feathers, refusing to let go of matters involving a bounty system in New Orleans and deflated footballs in New England. Goodell, over the years, has taken on allies and most famously picked a fight with close friend and Patriots owner Robert Kraft over “Deflategate,” refusing to allow Tom Brady to beat him. Players can protest his unilateral authority structure, but they have a losing record against it.
Roger Goodell had already met with Gene Upshaw, at the time the NFL Players Association’s executive director, and with Bryant Gumbel, who would be the play-by-play voice when the fledgling NFL Network began broadcasting games that fall. A tour of NFL facilities had been planned, Goodell eager to hear from individuals with each franchise and share his own big plans for his league.