The Goodell family in Washington D.C.: Left to right, Roger in the four-point… (National Football League/NATIONAL…)
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 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 D.C. 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 Super Bowl XLVII, the NFL commissioner finds the league in a remarkable situation: Its condition depends almost entirely on the view of the observer. Only the fifth commissioner the NFL has ever known, Goodell leads at 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.”
Born into politics
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.