Keeping Score

Cover Story: How Far Will Roger Goodell Go, To Protect The Game He Loves?

Inside the mind of the most powerful man in American sports

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CHIP LITHERLAND FOR TIME

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell speaks with Andrew Luck's father, Oliver Luck, during a NFL game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts in Jacksonville, Fla., on Nov. 8, 2012.

On Dec. 1, when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was told by the league’s head of security that Jovan Belcher, a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, murdered his girlfriend and then shot himself in the Kansas City Chiefs parking lot in front of his coach and general manager, he remembers his disbelief.  “My first thoughts weren’t about football at all,” Goodell told TIME in his first public comments since the shocking incident. “This is not a football tragedy. It’s a human tragedy that impacts families, loved ones and an innocent child left behind.” Would the Chiefs play their game against the Carolina Panthers the next day? “It was ultimately my decision,” he says. “But it was important to get the views of the players and honor their wishes. [Chiefs chairman] Clark [Hunt] got back to me and said [Coach] Romeo [Crennel] and the captains felt that playing the game–being together as a team  and a community — was important. So that’s exactly what we did.” The Chiefs beat the Carolina Panthers 27-21.

(LIST: Top 10 Sports Moments of 2012)

This week’s TIME cover story, which subscribers can read here, is an in-depth profile of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The Belcher incident is just the latest challenge facing the commissioner. Goodell needs to make football safer. “It doesn’t take a lot to jump to the conclusion that constant banging in the head is not going to be in your best interest,” he says. Just this week, a new study from Boston University detailed 33 cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — 15 of them previously unpublicized–in deceased ex-NFL players. (CTE, a debilitating brain disease associated with head trauma, can be diagnosed only post-mortem). Meanwhile, he’s trying to preserve the core of a game that is our national obsession — and a hugely profitable business. His job is, as he says, a “balancing act.”

Fans and players have objected to many of his decisions, like locking out the referees this season, and handing down severe punishment for the New Orleans Saints players and coaches in the bounty scandal. Saints quarterback Drew Brees, for example, says he’s “disappointed” in Goodell. “Really a lack of accountability from the top down,” Brees says. “Also, I feel like, in large part, this bounty scandal, so to speak, is a big facade and a way to cover up the shortcomings of the league with regard to player health and safety over the last three years.”

Goodell doesn’t buy such criticism. “I don’t do things for public relations,” Goodell told TIME. “I do things because they’re the right thing to do, because I love the game … If you want to do the popular thing, be a cheerleader.”

(MORE: Who Should Be TIME’s Person Of The Year 2012? Candidate: Roger Goodell) 

One idea that Goodell predicts will get more consideration: eliminating kickoffs. Fans may object to this rule change, since kickoffs produce thrilling returns.  TIME sat in on meeting between Goodell and Rich McKay, head of the NFL’s powerful competition committee. Goodell brought up a proposal promoted by Greg Schiano, coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: after a touchdown or field goal, instead of kicking off, a team would get the ball on its own 30-yard line, where it’s fourth and 15. The options are either to go for it and try to retain possession, or punt. If you go for it and fall short, the opposing team would take over with good field position. In essence, punts would replace kickoffs, and punts are less susceptible to violent collisions than kickoffs. “The fact is,” Goodell says. “It’s a much different end of the play…It’s an off-the-wall idea. It’s different and makes you think differently. It did me.”

TIME’s profile also details Goodell’s road to the commissioner’s office. His father, Charles Goodell, was a congressman from New York, appointed to the Senate after RFK was assassinated.  As a Republican who opposed the Vietnam war, Charles Goodell fell out of favor with the party, and lost his seat in the 1970 election. This principled stand guides all of Roger Goodell’s decisions, especially the ones that fans, players, or even owners don’t embrace. “He loved being a United States Senator,” Goodell says of his father. “My personal view is, he never got over that. And that’s sad to me on a lot of levels. But he did what was right. He knew the consequences. He knew it was going to end his career. You can’t buy a lesson like that.”

While growing up, Goodell was especially protective of his younger brother, Michael, who was the target of bullies. “Absolutely, he would beat the crap out of people,” says Michael. “Roger was not Atticus Finch.” When Michael Goodell, who came out after college, hears about gay kids committing suicide because of bullying, he reflects on how he could have been one of them. “I was the type who would have been beat up a lot,” says Michael. “It would have been humiliating. What would that have meant if I did survive it. Would I have done drugs? There are all sorts of things you can turn to because of self-hatred and loathing. But none of that was even a possibility, because I had this support around me. So, yeah, Roger is very much a hero figure for me.” During an with an interview with the commissioner, I read Michael’s words to him. Roger Goodell teared up. “Ha,” he says, sniffling, not able to say much else. “That’s the first time I heard that. I didn’t know it had much impact on him.”

In high school, Goodell — a three sport captain at Bronxville (N.Y.) High — enforced the type of player conduct code that he would later create as the commissioner of the NFL. At Bronxville, athletes were required to sign pledges that they would not drink or otherwise get into trouble. They hated when Goodell showed up to a party. “All of a sudden it was like an alarm went off,” says Michael. “They were running out of the back door as he was coming in the front door. It was like Prohibition.”

Roger excelled in sports, but he was far from the polished presences we see today.  In high school, Goodell rarely hit the books. “He was a big dumb jock,” says Michael. “He played that up. He was walking around in his letter jacket, with his girlfriend on his arm and stuff. He was big man on campus.” Michael laughs. “And one of the things we used to tease him about, he just used to grunt. You know, ‘hey, Rog, how are you today? ‘Grrrr.'” Goodell cops to his academic ambivalence — though in college, he took school more seriously, and thrived. But he says he doesn’t remember the grunting. Though a couple of NFL staffers say it sounds familiar. “He just wears a different jacket now,” says one.

Click here to subscribe to TIME, and to read more on Roger Goodell and the future of football.

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