But Goodell had pleased the bottom-line-loving owners by serving as the league's lone dissenting voice in its 1996 dispute with Jerry Jones over the Cowboys' rights to make licensing deals with companies that were not official NFL sponsors. The NFL lumped local and national rights together at that point; Jones thought he could make far more on his own than by just taking 1/30th (at the time) of the league's licensing revenue. "I believed Jerry was right," says Goodell, who was an NFL vice president at the time, "and I thought we were wrong on suing him. We were in a staff meeting, and I said that Jerry had some good ideas; maybe we could sell sponsorship without the club marks. And the reaction was, 'No way. This is what we've always done.'"
Eventually, though, the NFL agreed to what Jones, and Goodell, wanted: The league could have, for instance, an official soft drink (it's now Pepsi), and each team would be permitted to sell local soft-drink rights (16 teams have Coca-Cola, 16 have Pepsi). It's been a boon to business. Jones estimates that in the 15 years of the new sponsorship system, the Cowboys have made $100 million or more above what they would have made under the previous arrangement. Consultant Marc Ganis of Sportscorp Ltd. estimates that the 32 franchises have brought in at least an extra $2 billion thanks to the current system.
Factor in soaring TV viewership—28 of the 30 most-watched programs this fall were NFL games—and the business of football obviously has been very, very good during Goodell's tenure. The on-field product has been terrific, with success spread around: four different Super Bowl winners since Goodell took over, and 10 different NFC champs in the last 10 seasons.
Then there's Goodell's human touch. An SI reporter accompanied him on two road trips during the 2010 season, to Cincinnati in November and Minneapolis in December, and saw him connect with people both inside the game and on its periphery. Goodell conducted some private meetings but spent 12 hours in the public eye, from tailgating with Bengals fans to a late-night stop at a Minneapolis Arby's, and he never shut off the commissioner switch.
Outside Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, Goodell took questions, then shook hands and posed for photos with 124 fans in about 45 minutes. "It's great, him touching the fans like this," said Bob Castellini, 68, a 40-year season-ticket holder who stood next to a van tricked out in Bengals colors. "He's reachable. And I like how he's drawing a line on player behavior."
Goodell stood in the middle of a crowd and fielded this question first: "These guys are making millions of dollars. Do you think it's that big a deal if they take a few helmet-to-helmet hits?"
"I couldn't disagree more," Goodell said. "We need to make the game as safe as we can, and we're learning a lot about head injuries. We have a lot more to learn, but anything we can do to decrease the risk of injury—invest in the best equipment, [use] the best research, make rules that promote safety as much as possible—we're not going to compromise on it."
Fair enough, said the questioner, Brian Ibold. But later he said, "The league's going too far. It's gonna be flag football."
In the bowels of the stadium, Goodell ran into Bengals wideout Chad Ochocinco. Goodell has fined Ochocinco nearly $300,000 in the past four years for various infractions of NFL codes, but they hugged warmly. Ochocinco sheepishly showed off the gold shoes he was wearing, a uniform violation that he knew would cost him. "Sorry, Dad," Ochocinco said, and they both laughed.
But the human element hasn't always been so pretty. Even Goodell's ardent supporters tussle with him. A couple of years ago, during NFL meetings in California, the commissioner and Steelers owner Dan Rooney, with their wives at the table, argued openly about the league's sanctions against Pittsburgh's physical wideout, Hines Ward. "He plays by the book!" Rooney barked.