How Roger Goodell Became the Most Powerful Man in Pro Sports
Before eventually taking over for Paul Tagliabue, Goodell was once a lowly intern in the offices of Pete Rozelle and later the New York Jets. This wasn't any fortuitous stroke of luck. Goodell actually wrote the commissioner and each NFL team to inquire about job openings.
It's not like he was some high school sophomore trying to get a summer job, either. He had just graduated magna cum laude from William and Jefferson College with a degree in economics.
Roger's father, Charles Goodell, was a congressman who was later appointed to the United States Senate after Robert Kennedy's assassination. Charles fought Richard Nixon over Vietnam. However, for most of Roger's life, his father was just a Washington D.C. lawyer. His mother, Patricia Goldman Goodell, a champion of women's rights.
Type-A personality traits clearly run in the family.
Goodell's mix of economics education and public relations training would serve him well as he climbed the ladder in the NFL offices. In 1987, he would be appointed assistant to Lamar Hunt of the American Football League, moving back as a special assistant to Tagliabue in 1991. Among the jobs he held:
Director of international development and club administration, vice president of operations, vice president of business development, senior vice president of league and football development, executive vice president of business and football development, and executive vice president of business, properties and club services.
Upon becoming the COO in 2001, Goodell managed everything from venture capital to being an integral figure in the launching of the NFL Network.
All of this training and success led Goodell to a position where being named commissioner was really a foregone conclusion when Paul Tagliabue retired in 2006. Although it took five ballots, the process was characterized at the time as, "never much of a contest." His chief competition, Gregg Levy, was a longtime lawyer for the NFL who had won big cases for the NFL all the way up to the US Supreme Court. Levy still acts as outside counsel for the league.
Goodell almost immediately jumped into the fray against any and all assaults against "The Shield." The protection of the NFL brand has been at the forefront of his tenure as commissioner, which has often left him at odds with many of the NFL's players.
This past January, over 61 percent of the players said they disapprove of the job Goodell has done. The highlights of their displeasure (Bountygate, Lockout, player fines) all stem from disagreements over what is best for the NFL and Goodell's perceived bias towards NFL owners.
While there has always been (and will always be) labor contention in an industry with so many dollars at stake, the old guard of Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw were a lot more friendly with one another than Goodell and his counterpart, DeMaurice Smith, have been towards each other. Some of that is certainly on Smith's cold exterior, but it also has a lot to do with how well Goodell has done his job making the NFL owners a Scrooge McDuck-worthy amount of money.
His first salvo as defender of the NFL faith came with his now-infamous Personal Conduct Policy. Goodell is seen by many as judge, jury and executioner of NFL justice anytime someone besmirches the good name of the league. (It should be pointed out, however, that fines are actually handed out by Merton Hanks and Ray Anderson, appeals are heard by a joint team appointed by both the league and the NFLPA.)
Goodell realized that any bad press on the part of a few bad apples could easily ruin the NFL's brand.
Or, if you believe the general consensus in either Pittsburgh or New Orleans, Goodell is just a meanie-pants who has personal grudges and too much time on his hands.
Goodell's greatest successes have all been within the sphere of the power he has found himself able to wield. Fines? Check. Suspensions? Check. Draft picks taken away? Double-check. Cap penalties levied against teams even though it's a tacit admission of collusion? Wow, they let them get away with that?
It hasn't all been sunshine and puppy dogs for Goodell's regime, though. The nickname "no fun league" has been coined by critics in response to the anti-celebration fines levied to Terrell Owens and a bunch of people no one really cares about.
Flag. 15 yards. Playing football.— Aaron Nagler (@Aaron_Nagler) December 18, 2012
It isn't just excessive celebration fines that have rankled people, but also excessive attention paid to head trauma and reactionary solutions for player safety. Just recently, the NFL has seemed to embrace forward-thinking ideas like their "Heads Up" campaign and work to spur technological innovation. Trying to fine concussions out of the league clearly didn't work.
The aforementioned Bountygate case and subsequent Saints punishment—player, coach and executive suspensions, as well as a lost second-round pick—is a clear example not only of Goodell's incredible amount of power, but also the negative consequences of that power. Goodell was able to deny the Saints' request to get their draft pick back, even after Tagliabue disagreed with much of his original Bountygate punishment on appeal.
It is incidents like that which make Goodell's relationship with the players so tenuous. Just about everyone agrees that the NFL needs testing for human growth hormone, but do you think the players really want an appeals process that Goodell has any part in? They don't.
They don't trust him—not even a little bit.
The NFL has never been more popular than it is under Goodell's watch. His ascent to power seemed paved with gold, and his consolidation of power has been built on countless fines and suspensions. With the NFL's success seemingly limitless at this point, Goodell is clearly the most powerful man in professional sports—and he isn't going anywhere.
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.
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