Skip to main content

Late last Tuesday afternoon, in room 755 of the Renaissance hotel in Northbrook, Ill., a 47-year-old man registered as Roger Washington fidgeted and tried to read. Mr.Washington was actually Roger Goodell, one of the five candidates for NFL commissioner. Like the others, Goodell was booked into the hotel using a presidential pseudonym—ironic, since his late father, Charles, was a career politician who once served as a lightning rod of a senator from New York.

Goodell heard a knock at the door. He opened it to find Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, the cochair of the commissioner search committee, with a wide smile on his face. "Commissioner," Rooney said, and they embraced. Tears welled in Goodell's eyes as he thought of his father, who'd been so influential in his life, and of the letter he'd written to his dad upon graduating from Washington & Jefferson College in 1981. "If there is one thing I want to accomplish in life besides becoming commissioner of the NFL," wrote the young graduate, who, looking for a job, any job, had sent his résumé to every NFL team, "it is to make you proud of me."

Goodell will need his father's inspiration in his new gig. He was elected as the league's eighth chief executive on the fifth ballot of a typically contentious meeting between fractious owners, fending off a surprisingly strong challenge from NFL outside counsel Gregg Levy. That meeting says much about the rough seas Goodell will have to navigate when he takes over from Paul Tagliabue on Sept. 1. With a two-thirds majority required for victory in the secret balloting, Goodell led the 53-year-old Levy—who orchestrated the NFL's legal victory in the 2004 Maurice Clarett draft-eligibility case—by a scant 17-14 margin after two ballots (with Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis abstaining). Many of the pro-Levy owners came to Northbrook still mad about the five-month-old collective bargaining agreement with the players, feeling not enough was done to bridge the gap between high-revenue teams like the Washington Redskins (who'll gross about $320 million in 2006) and the Jacksonville Jaguars (about $170 million),and that the league's hallmark, competitive balance, will soon be adversely affected by the gulf.

A third secret ballot ended with the same numbers: 17 for Goodell, 14 for Levy. But the threat of a voice vote persuaded several pro-Levy owners to shift their support to Goodell (they didn't want him to enter office thinking they were against him) and, as Atlanta owner Arthur Blank said Monday, there was speculation—fueled by five owners who spoke to the group—that Goodell would leave the league if Levy won and take some trusted lieutenants with him. "We thought we might be able to have our cake and eat it too," Blank said. "We hoped with Roger as commissioner, Gregg would stay on." Two ballots later Goodell had the required votes, 23-8. Prompted by Tagliabue to make it unanimous, the owners voted one last time: 32-0 for Goodell.

So who is this man with the fresh face, the Fox News—anchor wife (Jane Skinner) and a five-year contract to run the most lucrative sports league on earth? The fact that the public knows little about Goodell as he takes office is one reason he's taking office. "Roger has been in the middle of the biggest news in the NFL for years, and what I admire is that he had no ego about it," says Giants president John Mara. "You never saw him quoted, never saw him in front of the cameras. You can't draw up a man with better job experience and a better personality for the job."

Goodell rose through the NFL ranks, from unpaid intern in 1982 to chief operating officer in '01. He was Tagliabue's point man on labor issues, television rights and the effort to return a team to Los Angeles. Hey, two out of three ain't bad."Roger's been doing a lot of the hard stuff, the stuff no one sees,"says former San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns president Carmen Policy. "He's very loyal to the owners, but he's more loyal to the brand. He's fine with doing the unpopular thing, as long as it's the right thing."

Goodell traces that strength to two pages from the Congressional Record that he has hanging on the wall of his office at the league's Manhattan headquarters. Dated Sept. 25,1969, the document is a record of the speech made by Republican senator Charles Goodell on the floor of the Senate that day. In it, Goodell, who'd been appointed by then New York governor Nelson Rockefeller to finish the term of the assassinated Robert Kennedy, called for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Vietnam by Dec. 1, 1970. "Mr. President," the speech began,"the war drags on. It still bleeds the human, moral and economic strength of our people. Its slaughter reaches even deeper into the ranks of our youth.... It knew no real beginning, and it seems to know no end."

Goodell was voted out of office a year later. Breaking ranks with his party may have ended his political career but it resonated with Roger, the third of his five sons."He lost his political seat over [Vietnam], but he never regretted his decision," Goodell said in his office last Friday. "I always remember that. You have to do what you think is right, regardless of the consequences.The other thing Dad had was incredible patience, an ability to understand and listen, particularly to people who didn't necessarily agree with him."

The seminal moment of Goodell's professional development came in 1998, when he negotiated with the groups looking to buy the Cleveland expansion franchise. Credit-card mogul Al Lerner, the favorite, told Goodell he should get a price break because of the strength of his position—he had community support and was promising to commit the money necessary to make the new Browns a flagship franchise. Lerner's accountants told him that $425 million was the absolute maximum the team was worth. "It's not going to work that way," Policy recalls Goodell telling Lerner. "You're going to have to make the highest bid." Later, at Lerner's Manhattan apartment, Lerner again pressed his case for paying less."With the coolness of a New York winter," Policy says, "Roger looked him right in the eye and told him if he wanted to play in this arena, he'd have to bid the most." Lerner agreed to pay $530 million, and the explosion in NFL franchise valuation was on. The following year Bob McNair paid $700 million for a team in Houston. "After that," says Policy, "Al respected Roger more and liked him a little less."

It's a sign of where the league is headed under Goodell that this season the NFL will distribute games live on the Internet outside of North America. If you've got a broadband connection in Cambodia, you'll be able to order the Giants-Eagles in real time next month. "That's the future," said Goodell. "People want football on demand, on different platforms, with different technologies."

Goodell is obviously very good at making the league money. Now he's going to have make it harmonious. To do that, he'll need all of Charles Goodell's force of character.