Every day when he leaves his Park Avenue office, Roger Goodell carries a folder. Inside is a call sheet with a list of owners. He talks to each one at least monthly, often from the car as he drives 18 miles from midtown Manhattan to his suburban home. Some owners don't have voicemail set up on their phones, so Goodell logs the date and time for each call. He's proud of his ritual -- he often shows the call log to visitors -- and it's one of the most fascinating aspects of his job, and one of the reasons there are reports this week that he'll likely agree to a new extension that will take him through 2024. Paul Tagliabue often delegated owner communication to aides. Goodell is sensitive to the accusation that he plays favorites. So he not only always says yes when an owner asks to play golf, not only attends many of their birthday parties, not only personally visits each owner when he's in his or her town -- he loves visiting 94-year-old Virginia Halas McCaskey in Chicago -- but he shows a willingness to get chewed out. "Imagine having your job in your hands every time you make that call," says a friend of Goodell's. "And he's been doing it for years."
And he will likely keep doing it for years. With the NFL's collective bargaining agreement up in 2021 and many of the broadcast deals set to expire in 2022 -- coming battles that Goodell excels at fighting -- the extension was always going to happen. It might be officially approved as early as October's league meetings in New York, according to an ownership source. For as much flak as Goodell takes from fans over his handling of disciplinary issues, for as often as he comes across as not being in charge and as being overly stiff, for as real as the idea of the No Fun League was in private presentations by marketing agencies to league executives last fall during the ratings drop, and for as daunting as the player safety challenge is to the long-term health of football, Goodell is going to be commissioner for the near future not only because he has successfully made owners money but because he is masterful at dealing with his constituency.
Even those who privately disagree with many of Goodell's decisions begrudgingly respect his ability to handle owners, to know their needs and produce answers to their issues, a master of his own senate. "We must re-engage all owners," he told them when he gave the speech of his life, in August 2006, pitching himself for his dream job -- and he meant it. For as consistent as he strives to be, there are 32 versions of Goodell, forged through those individual calls and the favors doled out on them. That's why when Goodell is often at his lowest publicly, he's at his strongest internally. Last week many speculated that Jerry Jones reportedly being "furious" over Ezekiel Elliott's six-game suspension for violating the personal conduct policy might cost Goodell one of his strongest and most powerful supporters. Coupled with Robert Kraft's anger over Deflategate, it seemed to paint an ominous sign of Goodell's future, the self-styled Conduct Commissioner penalizing his way out of champions.
But it was never the case, ownership sources say. Goodell didn't suspend Elliott to placate those who incorrectly believe that nobody stands up to Jones, of course. He did it based on evidence and protocol. But some owners feel that Jones has been "beyond out of line" a few times recently, never more than last October, when he yelled at NFL executive Lisa Friel at a hotel bar over the Elliott investigation. Call it petty jealousy. Call it karma. Call it a reasonable conclusion based on an investigation that lasted more than a year and had the unanimous support of a four-person expert panel, but the Elliott case was a win-win in the eyes of many owners: Goodell learned the lessons of Ray Rice and stood up to Jones, as he had stood up to Kraft. So it goes.
Goodell will now likely run the NFL until he is 65 years old. He is fierce in his resolve to not ride out his term but to be the commissioner who came the closest to solving football's long-standing problems. Goodell looks good for his age, the result of regular early-morning workouts, but friends have noticed the subtle signs of stress, graying at the temples like a president. There's a silent toll to the job; by the end of his career, Pete Rozelle was smoking three packs of cigarettes a day and had suffered a stroke. Goodell has been booed at many public appearances; he's been the subject of an assassination joke by a Boston sports commentator; he was protested at last year's Republican National Convention. Even moments of success have been clouded with backhanded compliments. At the groundbreaking ceremony for the Rams' new $2.6 billion stadium in Inglewood, California, the host thanked Goodell for the one decision "beyond a shadow of a doubt he got right!"
The decisions are still his, now and for the foreseeable future, as are the coming wars within.