Goodell sighed. "Dan," he said, "the problem is, you never think your players do anything wrong."
Goodell didn't make friends in New England in 2007 when he fined Patriots coach Bill Belichick $500,000 and the team $250,000 and docked the Pats a first-round draft pick for secretly videotaping an opposing team's coaching signals. Owner Robert Kraft thought the penalty too severe. Goodell told Kraft that, as part of the disciplinary action, Belichick would have to make a verbal apology in front of the press that week. Instead the coach issued a printed statement and refused to answer any questions on the topic. "I was given assurances that [Belichick] would tell his side of the story," Goodell says. "He went out and stonewalled the press. I feel like I was deceived."
Belichick responds, "I did not make any assurances about thoroughly discussing the subject publicly. I said I would address it following the league's review. I then did that in a way I thought was appropriate. I don't think that was deceptive."
In April 2007, after the massacre of students at Virginia Tech, the league invited players and alumni of the school to attend the NFL draft. So Vick, a former Hokie, was in New York City the last week of April just as news emerged linking him to dogfighting in Virginia. He and Goodell met privately the morning of the draft, and both men recall the exchange similarly.
"Michael," Goodell said to him, "look at me. Look at me! I'm not kidding here—were you involved in that dogfighting?"
"No," Vick said, looking down, refusing to meet Goodell's eyes. "No."
In a lengthy interview in his office last month, Goodell said, "It turns out later, when you look at the facts that came out, he was involved in killing a dog the day before, or within a two-day period. And he flat-out lied to me."
As Vick told SI, "I was really shaken up when I left there that day. I just kept thinking, I really hope this never comes out. I really hope it doesn't backfire on me. And of course it did. Everyone found out the truth. I made a huge mistake."
Vick was emotional as he recalled long nights in his cell at Leavenworth Federal Prison in Kansas, where he served 18 months for his role in the dogfighting ring. "Night after night I'd be thinking how I was going to make things right with the commissioner," Vick says. "It cut deep. It bothered me, day after day, knowing I lied to his face. I dreamed of the moment I'd have to face him again."
When Vick got out of jail and met with Goodell in July 2009, he asked if they could speak alone. "This has been on my heart for two years," Vick told Goodell, "I want to apologize—"