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Goodell cut him off. He said he appreciated that Vick was sorry, but they were there to talk about the future, not the past. Goodell's reasoning: What players say in those situations is relatively meaningless. It's their actions that matter. And the action that mattered to Goodell that day occurred when Vick waved off one of his advisers who tried to take part of the blame for Vick's involvement in dogfighting. "No," Vick said, rising in his chair, "I'm the one who did this. It's my fault."
"That showed me he was going to be accountable," said Goodell, "and we'd be able to work together. But it's a long process."
The discipline Goodell handed out to Vick—a six-week suspension, which was reduced to two with good behavior—was decried across America as far too lenient; it is the most criticized of all the decisions Goodell has made as commissioner. But his point was clear: He'll give a player a second chance and see if it stands the test of time.
Goodell and Vick communicate three or four times a month, by phone or text. On Jan. 9, a half hour after the Eagles had fallen to Green Bay in the playoffs, Goodell texted Vick: I'm sorry about the loss. You had an incredible year. Remember the progress. I'm very proud of you.
A few minutes later Goodell's phone vibrated with a text response from Vick: Thanks Roger! I will continue to make you and my family proud!
In a few weeks Goodell will be confronted with the league's most pressing issues. The union will hammer him and the NFL negotiators—justifiably, in some cases—over changing the disciplinary rules in midstream this year. How, for instance, could a helmet-to-helmet hit that brought a $5,000 fine in Week 2 bring a $75,000 fine in Week 6? And how can the league say it's serious about preventing injury while it's pushing for an 18-game schedule? "I don't feel real confident in him at this point," says NFLPA Executive Committee member Scott Fujita, a linebacker with the Browns. "Is 18 games possible? Yes. Is it responsible? No. I think [Goodell's] a good man, but if you really care about the health of your players, you can't advocate an 18-game schedule without considering improvements in postcareer health care."
Expect Goodell and the league to bend on that issue but stand firm on their core economic demands, such as cost sharing by players on elements that the league says benefit both sides financially. Goodell's a proven deal-maker, as he showed in the Cowboys licensing dispute and the Browns' stadium issue, but he's also quite good at drawing a line in the sand and letting nothing obliterate it.
One example: Goodell and Ebersol are close friends. In 2004 Ebersol's 14-year-old son, Teddy, died in a plane crash. The next year, when the family donated $1.3 million for the construction of a dormitory at the private school Teddy had attended in Connecticut, Goodell persuaded Tagliabue and Players Association head Gene Upshaw to fund a pair of suites in the dorm. Dick Ebersol was overcome with emotion when he toured the facility and saw plaques outside the two rooms, side by side, noting the NFL's and NFLPA's generosity.
Now, fast-forward to the 2009 negotiations between the NFL and NBC over extending the network's broadcast contract for 2012 and '13. The NFL, according to Ebersol, insisted on a rights fee of $600 million a year, though NBC wasn't getting a Super Bowl in either of those seasons. Ebersol and Goodell had a few back-and-forth discussions, and Goodell finally said the NFL wouldn't take a dime less than $600 million.
"There was a coldness and a 'that's it' tone in Roger's voice that was chilling," says Ebersol. "At his heart Roger can be a cold son of a bitch. I think the people on the other side of the negotiating table are going to hear that in the coming months. He's going to show mettle, and he's going to do what he thinks is best for the National Football League. It's what he's always done."