The new NFL season is three weeks old, thanks to a last-minute labor pact forged by commissioner Roger Goodell, but the man responsible is hardly gloating. Instead, America’s leading football evangelist has picked up right where he left off last season: with suspensions. Goodell has made policing off-the-field behavior into a giddy moral crusade.
When an NFL player is charged with a crime (and sometimes when he’s only suspected of one), Goodell summons him to a face-to-face meeting at the league’s offices on Park Avenue. Nothing happens in the meetings that couldn’t be accomplished by phone, but the setting works better for Goodell’s disciplinary theater. “It’s childish,” says one lawyer who has attended the meetings. “Ultimately, that player knows he’s in trouble. You don’t need the principal to tell him.”
But Goodell relishes the chance. In his five years as commissioner, he has called more than a dozen players into his office, and when the lockout ended in July, he sought out more. Tampa Bay cornerback Aqib Talib, indicted on charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in May, got his summons to NFL headquarters last month. He was on a double bill with Tennessee wide receiver Kenny Britt, who had been arrested twice during the spring and summer. Both were locked out of work when the incidents occurred—a labor stoppage backed, naturally, by Goodell—meaning their conduct should not be subject to league oversight. The same went for the Bengals’ Cedric Benson, who was suspended last week. Goodell felt he could punish them all anyway.
At Talib’s meeting, Goodell and other NFL officials sat on one side of a long conference table, with Talib and his team on the opposite side. (One agent who’s been in such a session said his side was outnumbered almost four to one, as if NFL officials were lining up for a max blitz.) Talib turned to Goodell and began to recount his version of the incident, in which he is alleged to have fired a gun at another man. Talib is facing a criminal indictment, so anyone in the room could then be subpoenaed to testify at trial, but Talib’s lawyers decided they had no choice: If you want to play in the NFL, Goodell must be allowed to take stock of your character.
This year, the player who has drawn the most scrutiny is Terrelle Pryor, a former Ohio State quarterback suspended by the NCAA for selling memorabilia. When Pryor responded by turning pro, Goodell took the unprecedented step of enforcing the suspension—never mind that selling memorabilia is no crime in pro football and that the league’s mandate does not extend to its players’ college days. The Indianapolis Colts, who had hired Pryor’s college coach Jim Tressell, got so worried they suspended him too.
Goodell’s disciplinary meetings are great soul-searching sessions; as George W. Bush once looked into Vladimir Putin’s soul, Goodell gazes into Ben Roethlisberger’s. And despite gripes from the players during labor negotiations, Goodell managed to retain final authority on discipline. In baseball, players can appeal suspensions for off-the-field conduct to an arbitrator. When you contest a Goodell disciplinary suspension, the guy who hears the appeal is Goodell himself.
His rulings can seem perfectly arbitrary: Goodell chose not to suspend Talib or Britt, both of whom face criminal charges, even as he cracked down on Pryor, the small-time memorabilia peddler. That’s because Goodell isn’t just interested in punishing bad behavior; most of the time, he seems more focused on shaming it. Paul Brown and Vince Lombardi might have made football a moral boot camp, but Goodell’s NFL has the whiff of juvenile detention. He has been known to compose thundering letters—“Your conduct has brought embarrassment and ridicule upon yourself, your club, and the NFL, and has damaged the reputation of players throughout the league”—and to expect an obsequious response. At the beginning of one disciplinary hearing, an agent recalls, Goodell asked a player, “Do you have any role models?” At the end, the NFL’s principal turned to his millionaire pupil and said, “I don’t want to ever see you in here again.”