Publish date:

It's About The Principal

Author:

ROGER GOODELL BEGAN HIS COMMISSIONERSHIP 10 YEARS AGO AS THE NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN, BUT IN DISCIPLINE HEARINGS HE'S MORE LIKE A STERN SCHOOLMASTER. PLAYERS WHO'VE BEEN SUMMONED BEFORE HIM RECOUNT THEIR EXPERIENCES

A LETTER APPEARS in the player's locker if the season is in progress. In the off-season it arrives at his home, via FedEx. His agent and the union receive copies via email, too. The NFL shield is there at the top, and below it is a request that the player report to the league offices at 345 Park Avenue, in midtown Manhattan, for a meeting with the commissioner, Roger Goodell. Attendance is mandatory. Sincerely, NFL Senior Vice President Adolpho A. Birch III.

The player arrives in New York City the night before his meeting and huddles with his lawyer over dinner. He gets his story straight—what he wants to tell the commissioner, how he might answer certain questions. He worries about his message coming across the right way. He wonders how Goodell will respond.

The next morning, as he approaches the league office, he and his lawyer are met by a swarm of media members and paparazzi. Don't look so menacing, his lawyer has told him. Try to smile. Look relaxed. Relaxed? He just wants to get inside.

He is directed to the sixth floor, where he walks into a waiting area of pearl-white seating. Behind one glass case sits the Lombardi Trophy; behind another, every Super Bowl ring. Magnifying glasses are laid out for those who want to get a closer look, as if these are precious artifacts (which, here, they are). Behind the receptionist's desk, a giant TV plays the NFL Network—pundits discuss news from around the league, including the very discipline meeting the player is about to enter.

Now he has to wait while a conference room is prepared, and those 15-odd minutes feel like forever. He's transported back to middle school, sitting outside the principal's office, waiting waiting waiting, a million things running through his mind.

This is a feeling several players have experienced since Goodell was named commissioner 10 years ago, on Aug. 8, 2006. Goodell's predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, had widely been considered passive when it came to player discipline. But as the league developed into a multibillion-dollar behemoth, Goodell felt it was his duty to police players and, as he put it, "protect the shield," the NFL's image. Spygate, Bountygate, Deflategate—all of the -gates.... The player-discipline cases that Goodell takes on create headlines, attract criticism and set the tone for the league. Though he makes countless decisions, the determinations he makes in these cases receive the most scrutiny. They will be his legacy, for better or worse.

And so, a player who sits across from Goodell in one of these discipline meetings gains a unique look at him as commissioner. Like a school principal, Goodell wants the player to be honest, appear respectful and show contrition. Accepting Goodell's point of view can play a role in determining how the meeting unfolds. The commissioner can get loud and demonstrative when he's making a point. Or he can offer guidance and an arm around the shoulder. Many players find his demeanor condescending, his punishments oppressive. Others believe he is tough because he cares, because he wants to help in rehabilitation. Sometimes, near the end of a meeting, after he's heard a player's side of the story and while he's mulling the case over, Goodell will deploy an old principal's trick.

Tank Johnson visited the commissioner in 2007, following multiple off-field incidents, including gun charges to which he'd pleaded guilty. Then a defensive tackle with the Bears, Johnson had argued, in part, that the legal system tried to make an example of him.

"Tank, how many games do you think you should be suspended?" Goodell asked.

Johnson looked Goodell in the eye. "None," he replied.

"In this case, I agree with you," Johnson recalls Goodell saying, "but I have to suspend you to uphold the integrity of the National Football League."

PLAYERS GET popped often for committing infractions on the field or off it, for using illegal substances or performance-enhancing drugs—even for deflating footballs—and the majority of them don't come to the league office to meet with Goodell. Collectively bargained policies govern anyone caught testing positive for recreational drugs or PEDs. A player cited for an in-game incident usually convenes with a football operations staffer. When there's a violation of the personal conduct policy, for something off the field, the player will often meet with Birch, who will brief Goodell on the situation and the action the league is taking.

Birch estimates that in Goodell's decade in office, the commissioner has attended only 10 to 15 formal, face-to-face player discipline meetings. Usually Goodell takes on the higher-profile cases, such as one involving Donté Stallworth in 2009. Stallworth, a receiver with the Browns at the time, had, while driving under the influence in Miami, struck and killed a 59-year-old man; Stallworth pleaded guilty to DUI manslaughter charges and spent only 24 days in jail as part of his plea agreement.

About a month after Stallworth was released from jail, Goodell summoned him to New York. The commissioner sat on one side of a conference table, next to the two men who most often accompany him at these meetings: Birch and the league's general counsel, Jeff Pash. Stallworth sat across from them with an assortment of supporters: his mother, Donna; his close friend Steve Boucher; Rebkah Howard, a public relations representative; and his legal team, including David Cornwell, a lawyer with extensive experience dealing with Goodell and the league office.

According to several people in attendance, Birch ran the session, as usual, so that Goodell could listen and speak when he saw fit. Stallworth walked them all through everything he did that day, from the moment he woke up, and Cornwell explained the context of the accident, including why Stallworth had received a relatively light sentence that generated some public outrage. Cornwell brought out the police report, crime-scene photos and a video, taken at the scene, that had not been released to the public but that supported the lawyer's contention that the victim had suddenly appeared in front of Stallworth's car while rushing to catch a bus. Cornwell's point: There was little Stallworth could have done to avoid the accident, regardless of whether he was drunk.

Finally, Goodell spoke.

As Stallworth recalls it: "He basically said, 'Listen, I don't care about the legal side. I want to know that you understand the irreparable harm that you've done to this family and the stain that you've put on the NFL, yourself and your own family.'"

Stallworth's lawyers had touched a nerve. "He does not have a high tolerance for over-lawyer-fication, so to speak," Birch says of Goodell. "Sometimes I do think things get bogged down over legal arguments, back and forth. And that will kind of set him off, I've seen. At least it frustrates him." (Goodell declined to talk for this story.)

As the meeting went on, Stallworth's mother, Boucher and Howard all spoke on the receiver's behalf, about his character. Then, as everyone was leaving, Goodell pulled Stallworth aside and spoke to him privately. This is another technique of his, an attempt to cut through the legalese and connect on a more human level, maybe to ensure that the player understands where he's coming from.

Here, according to Stallworth, Goodell reiterated that he was "disappointed" in Stallworth's actions. He emphasized again the gravity of the offense. He told Stallworth that the court ruling would have no bearing on how the NFL punished him. "We're not tied to the legal system," Stallworth says Goodell told him.

With that, Stallworth returned to Florida. But after replaying the meeting over and over in his head, he decided he needed to see the commissioner again. He feared that he hadn't fully expressed his remorse. A few days after his initial visit he flew back to New York and went to the league office unannounced. When a secretary told Stallworth that Goodell's schedule was packed, the receiver sat down and read a book, The Holy Man, steeling himself to wait all day if he had to ... until Goodell spotted him on his way to another meeting. Not long after, the commissioner cleared his schedule and invited Stallworth into his own office, a cozier setting.

"You're not a player and I'm not the commissioner," Stallworth says Goodell told him as they entered. "You walk in [to my office] as a man who's talking to another man. We're not commissioner and player. We're man and man."

Stallworth recalls they spoke for about an hour. He said his part, and Goodell stated that he wanted Stallworth to become an advocate against drunk driving. The commissioner also opened up to Stallworth about hardships he had overcome in his own life, details that had not been made public, things Stallworth isn't sure many other people know. Goodell asked Stallworth what he would do if he were sitting in the commissioner's chair. Coming in, Stallworth had believed there was a chance he would be banned for life. He told Goodell then that he would suspend himself "at least for a year," which matched the yearlong ban Goodell would eventually dole out. As Stallworth left the room, this time Goodell went in for a hug.

JUST BEFORE Roger Goodell testified at a league hearing involving former Ravens running back Ray Rice, who was shown in a leaked 2014 video to be striking his then fiancée, the commissioner found himself standing next to Peter Ginsberg, Rice's lawyer, at a urinal. Ginsberg joked, "Roger, look, we've got to stop running into each other like this." And Goodell didn't laugh, according to Ginsberg. Didn't even smile. He just silently left the bathroom.

Of all the lawyers Goodell has dealt with, Ginsberg is perhaps the one with whom he has engaged in the nastiest battles. At the time of their restroom run-in Ginsberg had represented players in two of the NFL's highest-profile discipline cases—Rice and Jonathan Vilma, a Saints linebacker in the 2010 Bountygate scandal—and he had publicly attacked Goodell, the league and its practices. The first time Ginsberg represented a player in front of the commissioner, he pleaded for leniency for his client. He says Goodell stood up, wagged his finger and barked, "Don't you ever lecture me again!" Later, during a Bountygate hearing, Ginsberg spoke for 45 minutes, uninterrupted, detailing the flaws in the NFL's case—and then he left the room to bring Vilma in before Goodell could respond. (A high-ranking league official disputed Ginsberg's account of the bathroom interaction and of the finger-wagging.)

Ginsberg is sitting in his office now, with a courtroom drawing of Michael Vick (a former client) hanging on the wall, and he's describing what it's like to take on Goodell. He believes the commissioner is swayed by public opinion and that his mind is typically made up before a meeting starts. It doesn't help that, to Ginsberg, Goodell's punishments at times seem arbitrary. Ginsberg thinks that the commissioner has cracked down on certain players in order to compensate for his not already having protocol in place for those players' offenses, especially in dealing with social issues raised by Rice or Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who was charged with child abuse. (He pleaded guilty to a reduced charge.) Goodell suspended both players indefinitely while the league decided what to do with them.

The same high-ranking league official points out that the commissioner always takes into account precedent, a player's past record and whether he cooperates. The official points out that in December 2014, after the Rice and Peterson cases made national news, the league (under Goodell's guidance) rewrote its personal conduct policy to ensure a six-game suspension for first-time offenders who commit a wide range of violent crimes, including domestic violence and child abuse.

So how would Ginsberg advise a client who's been summoned by Goodell? For one, Ginsberg would tell him not to say anything that might be used in future litigation. "What Roger looks for is somebody to agree with him or to beg forgiveness," Ginsberg says. "It's very difficult to have a genuine, authentic disagreement with Roger."

Ginsberg goes on: "If you're not willing to do a mea culpa, get down on your knees and cry a little bit, convince Roger you're a better person for having been through the experience ... it's difficult to walk into one of those meetings feeling very optimistic."

ANTHONY HARGROVE visited the league office four or five times over the course of his eight-year career as an NFL defensive end, first because of repeated alcohol and cocaine offenses, and later for his central role in the Bountygate scandal. Whenever he came to New York, the players association would arrange his travel and hotel accommodations. Sometimes the union would put him up in the famous Waldorf-Astoria.

Hargrove would take a warm bath, lounge around in his hotel bathrobe and call his brother: "Hey, bro, you won't believe what I'm doing...." He ordered chocolate strawberries from room service and strolled through the lobby, passing the sparkling jewelry store and the restaurant, getting a whiff of the steaks cooking. "Just the smell of ... the upper echelon," he says.

But over time Hargrove realized: If the union had gotten him a room at the Waldorf, he "was going to be in for a fight" with the league. Those chocolate strawberries were his last supper.

Hargrove particularly remembers one 2012 visit for a Bountygate hearing. Goodell had initially suspended him for eight games, accusing Hargrove of lying to league investigators, which to the commissioner was a cardinal sin. He cited Hargrove for "conduct detrimental to the league."

The Bountygate case then took another turn. After Goodell denied Hargrove's initial appeal, a league appeals panel temporarily vacated the suspension, and so now Hargrove was back to state his case once more to Goodell, who would rule whether to uphold the very suspension that he had handed down.

Hargrove prepped accordingly. He debriefed teammates about their Bountygate hearings. He studied Mary Jo White, the former prosecutor tabbed by Goodell to review the case, and scrutinized her interview style. Hargrove had visited the league office so many times that he even knew the security guard and where the hearing would take place.

When Hargrove got on the elevator, however, he was directed to go down to a lower level. Down? This was new. The elevator kept going and going, descending into what Hargrove says "seemed like hell." His heart sank into his stomach. This wasn't what he'd planned for. Hargrove walked into a large windowless room, and there was Goodell, reaching out to shake his hand, along with White and what felt like an army of faceless people, none of whom looked friendly.

Hargrove felt as if he were going to have a heart attack. He started doing breathing exercises as he took his seat, giving himself a pep talk the way he might before a big game. Only this felt bigger than a game. "I was fighting for my career against a machine, or a monster," Hargrove says. "They have the power to end your career!"

The league sometimes relocates player discipline sessions in an effort to avoid media attention. Meetings have been held elsewhere in Manhattan, and players have been directed to use side doors. Once, when the location got out, a meeting was moved—then moved again. Vick met with league officials at a nondescript office in a small town in New Jersey. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had one of his meetings in a conference room at Westchester County Airport, in White Plains, N.Y.

The basement space to which the NFL directed Hargrove is what one league official describes as a "multipurpose room," a place used "when there is a need for privacy away from the rest of the building." Tom Brady had his Deflategate hearing there.

In Hargrove's case, White led the charge. "She would ask the same kind of questions over and over and over," says Phil Williams, Hargrove's agent, who was in the meeting. "She kept trying to trap [Anthony]." Williams wondered when the two union lawyers in attendance would step in.

Goodell sat quietly, Williams says, "until he felt like there might be blood in the water"—that White was about to catch Hargrove in a lie. He leaned forward, his eyes excited. Then, Williams says, when Hargrove talked his way out of it, Goodell would get red and slide back in his chair.

At one point, Hargrove says he asked that White simply reference the interview he did with a league investigator named Joe Hummel in 2010, at the outset of the Bountygate affair. The NFL side of the room seemed startled by that request. They took a recess and huddled. Then, according to Hargrove and Williams, a league official said there was no record of that interview. Their records, in fact, indicated he'd interviewed with someone else.

What? Hargrove insists that he sat with Hummel, face-to-face. There, in a windowless room in the basement of the NFL offices, he felt hopeless.

"It became clear to me," Hargrove says now, "it was going to be difficult for me to prove myself innocent because they were going to conjure up whatever truth they needed to make it believable to the public. That was the hardest thing to swallow. You feel like you're screaming at the top of your lungs, and no one's listening."

AFTER A discipline meeting, after Goodell makes up his mind, he writes a player a second letter on league stationery. He admonishes him for his actions, outlines his thinking and notifies him of any punishment. His tone reflects the seriousness with which he takes each infraction. In his letter to Peterson, for example, Goodell threatened that if the All-Pro violated the personal conduct policy again, he would face possible "banishment from the NFL."

In some instances, Goodell stays in touch with a player and develops a relationship. The commissioner kept up with Stallworth and spoke to owners on his behalf when the receiver was reinstated, which helped him play in parts of three more seasons. Goodell remained in contact with Johnson, too, and now, six years after his career ended, Johnson works as an intern in the league office.

Vilma, on the other hand, was never the same player after Bountygate. Rice, a three-time Pro Bowl back, didn't play another down. Neither did Hargrove. He might as well have been radioactive; his career ended a month before his 30th birthday, in June 2013, while he was still in his prime.

Now Hargrove has found new direction. He's finishing his bachelor's degree in special education at Rend Lake College in Ina, Ill., with help from a scholarship from the players association. He's teaching high school students at an education center on the subject of acceptance and commitment therapy.

"Basically it's accepting where you're at now," Hargrove explains. "Being able to defuse the situations in your life....

"Something the NFL helped me learn!" he adds, letting out a deep laugh.

"What Roger looks for is somebody to agree with him or to beg forgiveness," says Ginsberg.

"Goodell does not have a high tolerance for over-lawyer-fication, so to speak," says Birch. "That will set him off."