Then Johnson saw something he'll never forget. "That night a car parks outside my mom's house," he says. Private security, arranged by Goodell. "Every night till I left for training camp, from sundown to sunup, maybe six weeks, that car's there, with security watching my mom's house.
"Pretty good alternative to me maybe blowing somebody's head off."
It's a Monday in early January in the League Room, the 17th-floor conference room at the NFL's offices on Park Avenue in New York City. A Super Bowl XLV planning meeting is under way. Goodell and 40 senior staffers listen as the league's vice president of events, Mary Pat Augenthaler, informs them of a new initiative: selling 4,000 tickets, at $200 apiece, for fans to stand outside Cowboy Stadium and watch the game on a big-screen TV. While Augenthaler talks up the added value—Cowboys cheerleaders will perform, and each ticket buyer will receive a Super Bowl commemorative scarf—there's a quiet ripple of Are you kidding me? from those who hadn't heard about the plan.
They, of all people, should know not to underestimate the power of the NFL brand. Less than two weeks after going on sale on Jan. 18, those 4,000 tickets were gone. "It was like a shark hitting red meat," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said last week. "We're thinking of selling more tickets. I know this: However many we print, people will buy."
That's the NFL today—people pay $200 to be near the Super Bowl. "The NFL's become the most important entertainment vehicle in the U.S.," says Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports & Olympics, one of the league's broadcast partners. "More important than movies, than great TV shows. The [NFL's] TV audience is 30 percent bigger than it was two years ago. It's unheard of in a time when the average household has 120 channels."
Goodell, sandy-haired and fit at 51, is the steward of this multibillion-dollar juggernaut, having attained the job he dreamed about back in college. Over the first 4½ years of his tenure, he's had to address numerous crises: Spygate; player discipline, most notably in the Michael Vick case; an epidemic of concussions; and the problem of how to keep players from maiming each other on the field. All the while, one thing has loomed very large over the commissioner: the shaky labor deal he inherited.
Goodell had better enjoy this week's Super Bowl, because it's going to be all rancorous business after that. D day is coming. Unless a new labor agreement is reached in the next five weeks, the owners will lock the players out of all team facilities on March 4, and the clock will start ticking on the 2011 season, which is tentatively due to begin seven months after Pittsburgh and Green Bay leave the field in north Texas on Sunday night.
"If Roger's in office for 25 years," says Carolina's Jerry Richardson, chief labor negotiator among the 32 owners, "this will be the toughest challenge he'll ever face. However it turns out, it's a resolution he'll have to live with for the rest of his career."
Goodell will have trusted lawyers and owners by his side during the negotiations, but make no mistake: This will be a deal the commissioner drives, in meetings both with the NFL Players Association and its head, DeMaurice Smith, and with leaders of the 32 franchises. One ownership source says Goodell's level of trust among the owners is so high that if he recommends an agreement that passes muster with the players, it will easily get the three-quarters vote (24 of 32 teams) necessary for passage. "I've never seen our group more unified," said Jones.
But Goodell will need all the boldness and problem-solving skills he's shown since his bartending days to resolve the myriad issues dividing the two sides. Owners think they pay far too much to grow overall revenues and want an additional $1 billion exempted from the shared-revenue pool; the players say they shouldn't have to take a reduced cut of the pie. The league wants a rookie wage scale; the players want to know where those savings would go. The owners probably will propose adding two games to the regular season while subtracting two from the preseason; in exchange the NFLPA wants salary increases, better postcareer health care and improvements in pension vesting. The players want to see full financial records for all 32 teams, to check whether any team is actually in financial hardship; the NFL says the players have enough financial information.