Goodell’s War Journal: Unbreakable shield
Some institutions really are too big to fail
Content warning: This piece recounts real NFL-related atrocities. Some sections are accordingly grim.
I’ve dedicated my entire adult life to the game of football. To the National Football League.
A game I used to love so dearly, I let it break my young body in high school.
A league I used to respect so deeply, I overlooked its many warts in favor of the spectacle.
For decades I told myself nothing compared to the glory of the NFL. The passion, pageantry, and camaraderie. The impossible feats of grace and athleticism. The incomparable acts of brutality and violence.
I’ve given my best years to this complicated, conflicted, and confounding game.
My best years to this callous, craven, and cynical league.
This game I used to worship.
This league I now despise.
I started off as a lowly intern in 1982, winning the job through some bogus letter-writing contest my dad told me about.
Did it help that he was a former U.S. Senator from New York? One appointed in 1968 to backfill the assassinated Robert F. Kennedy’s seat? Unquestionably.
But what was I supposed to do? Turn the offer down? One kid denying himself a dream opportunity wouldn’t solve society’s structural inequity. Change on that scale takes persistence. Perseverance. Time.
I seized my opportunity and parlayed the internship into a brief stint with the Jets. There I quickly realized everything about the NFL wasn’t always hunky-dory. I don’t like to talk about what I saw, but let’s just say the Jets can demoralize even the staunchest supporter.
Back to the league office I went, where I slowly and methodically climbed the corporate ladder. Season after season I grinded. Nobody could outwork me, and no task was beneath me.
I fetched coffees. Drafted emails. Ferried mistresses. Lied to wives.
By the late nineties I’d developed a keen and ruthless business acumen, particularly with respect to the league’s two most pressing financial challenges: stiff-arming the NFLPA on revenue sharing and post-retirement health benefits, and strongarming municipalities into footing the bill for costly, state-of-the-art stadiums.
My shrewd judgement and tireless work ethic made me then-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s preferred hatchet man. Whenever a problem arose — like 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo bribing Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards for a riverboat casino license — Paul sent me to sort it out.
I didn’t always love the work. It often felt slimy and unseemly. But I prided myself on getting the job done. No matter what.
My dedication and tenacity paid off in late 2001 when I was promoted to COO. Paul had effectively declared me his successor.
All my dreams were coming true. I held one of the most powerful — and lucrative — perches in all of sports. I helped the world’s greatest athletes play the most fascinating game ever created for the country’s most fervent, passionate fans.
How could I consider myself anything but blessed?
In early 2003 Paul invited me to his home for dinner. I remember our conversation like it happened yesterday.
Over wine he said, “You’re in the inner circle now, Roger. But to earn the top job, you’ll need to do things. Unsavory things.”
I furrowed my brow and asked, “Like what?”
Paul explained how the league rigged the “Tuck Rule Game” against the Raiders because everyone hated Al Davis, then described how league officials doctored evidence and silenced witnesses during the Ray Lewis double-murder investigation.
I thought he was joking.
Then he told me that stuff was “small potatoes” and “just the tip of the iceberg.” He said some two-bit doctor at Pitt was putzing around with Mike Webster’s brain and making a stink about a neurodegenerative disease called CTE.
Pretty soon the league would have to respond to allegations that our great game caused this disorder. More importantly, we’d have to explain what we knew, and how long we’d known it.
“How would you handle this situation, Roger?”
I remember vomiting in Paul’s guest bathroom. Then I remember telling him I’d do whatever it took to protect the shield.
When I got home that evening I told my wife I wanted to quit. She advised me to sleep on it. Over breakfast she pointed to our twin girls, just two at the time. She said if I wanted to make a better world for them, I’d stay and fight.
I’d use my position of power and privilege to fix things from the inside.
For three long years I ate nothing but dogshit. Buried scandal after scandal. On the field and off.
I covered up sexcapades and drug violations for the owners. Domestic violence and doping allegations for the players.
All while the existential threat of CTE simmered in the background.
When I wasn’t doing the dirty work, I fought like hell for our workforce.
I argued for higher salary caps and more referee pay.
I questioned why — in a league of predominantly Black players — so few teams had Black head coaches, general managers, executives, and owners.
And I challenged the Competition Committee to make the game safer. The rules clearer. I even suggested we eliminate head-to-head contact from the game altogether.
All of it fell on deaf ears.
Worse still, I’d pissed off so many people Paul said I risked losing the top job. He told me the Commissioner’s role was to do the owners’ bidding, and take the heat when things went awry.
I considered quitting on the spot.
But then I thought about my little girls. Thought about their future kids. Thought about them telling my grandchildren how I had a chance to effect positive change on our culture, but gave up because the going got too tough.
That very night, while DVRing Monday Night Raw, I watched HHH cut an exemplary promo. For over a decade he’d remained the top heel for his promotion. The villain fans loved to hate. I realized then the NFL could learn a thing or two from the world of professional wrestling. And I knew exactly what to do next.
On September 1, 2006 I assumed the title of “most powerful person in sports.”
A quarter-century inside the syndicate taught me the words were little more than ceremonial. My real job was to follow orders and play the role of public villain with a smile on my face.
I channeled my inner HHH. If they wanted a heel, they’d damn well get a heel.
One of my first major acts as Commissioner was to institute a new “Personal Conduct Policy.” According to the ghouls in Washington, sunshine’s the ultimate disinfectant. Now I had reason to publicly air the league’s dirty laundry, and show everyone what really went on behind closed doors.
I doled out suspensions and fines with impunity. Bryant McKinnie and Fred Smoot for the “Love Boat.” Pacman Jones and Chris Henry for repeatedly falling afoul of the law. Tank Johnson for taking his nickname too literally.
For the coup de grâce, I tipped off the Feds about Michael Vick’s repugnant dogfighting operation, Bad Newz Kennels. This coward beat, hanged, drowned, electrocuted, and shot dogs. Repeatedly tortured and murdered man’s best friend.
Surely fans would have to reckon with the type of men who suited up each Sunday, right?
Vick — aka Ron Mexico — won Comeback Player of the Year in 2010 after an eighteen-month prison stay.
In tandem with these sickening revelations I decided to strike at the very heart of the league itself. The so-called integrity of the game. Hence, Spygate.
I’d known for years Bill Belichick was a cheating scumbag, and now everyone else would too. His scheming tainted the Patriots’ three Super Bowl championships and cast doubt on the league’s fairness and legitimacy.
Surely fans would tune out if they thought the games were rigged, right?
I’d failed to heed my own learnings. Nothing’s more magnetic than a villain everyone loves to hate. And what could be more loathsome than the trio of crusty old Belichick, Michigan Wolverine Tom Brady, and the city of Boston?
The scandals mounted and I mismanaged them as poorly yet realistically as possible. When nothing made a dent I ratcheted up the intensity.
I locked out the players in 2011. Since nobody wanted to lose money, however, we missed zero games.
I unveiled “Bountygate” in 2012. Of course, to anyone paying attention for the last six decades, the revelation that players placed bounties on one another was laughably banal. Still, I made a big deal out of the “controversy” and suspended coaches, players, and executives.
That same year I locked out the referees, which materially damaged the integrity of our games. Every week a new officiating disaster unfolded on the field.
Then, on Saturday, December 1, 2012, the venal hand of providence grabbed me.
Twenty-five-year-old Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins — the mother of his infant daughter — then drove to his training facility and shot himself in the head in front of head coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli.
I steeled my nerves and assured myself I was doing the right thing. Then I ordered the following day’s game to be played as scheduled. Could a league show less humanity? Could a Commissioner be more heartless?
The Chiefs won. And the “healing process” began.
A year later Belcher’s body was exhumed and his brain examined. It revealed signs of CTE.
By then the Chiefs had hired legendary head coach Andy Reid. In 2017 they drafted transcendent, once-in-a-lifetime talent Patrick Mahomes to play quarterback.
On Sunday they’ll play in their third Super Bowl together.
By this point CTE had become a household term. Something people discussed while watching our games. Something players openly fretted about, and feared. Prominent retirees said they wished they’d never played our great game. Parents agreed their sons and daughters would never don a helmet. Progress.
I acknowledged the plight of thousands of former employees turned victims and attempted to settle all outstanding litigation with a cartoonishly low offer of $765 million. The judge rejected it. The media called me a supervillain. I took the heat, because I had to.
The names Richie Incognito and Ray Rice entered the cultural lexicon.
I went back to the well and slapped the Patriots with “Deflategate.” The crisis was just stupid enough to further tarnish the already tarnished reputations of Belichick, Brady, and Boston.
They won three more Super Bowls.
When Colin Kaepernick peacefully protested against police brutality during the national anthem I obviously took the wrong side of the culture war. My tone-deaf comments and totalitarian disciplinary measures and ostentatious blacklisting of players were so preposterously idiotic they must’ve been intentional.
They were. A great heel generates heat.
When Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier got temporarily paralyzed during a Monday Night Football broadcast on December 4, 2017 I openly wept. Surely something had to give this time. Were we willing to watch these young men maim themselves on prime-time television? And do nothing?
Fans eventually celebrated his stirring recovery and indomitable spirit.
For ten straight years I tried to destroy the machine from within. The only tangible outcome was a bigger paycheck for myself.
I retreated from center stage and watched the meat grinder churn unabated. Resigned. At least I could tell my daughters and grandchildren I tried.
When the pandemic hit I made the players plow through infections — obviously. Fans didn’t care about bludgeoned brains or broken bodies or murder-suicides, so why would they express concern over a “little flu?”
But then providence — that fickle bastard — extended his sadistic hand once again.
On January 2, 2023, Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field. A ghastly sense of hope coursed through my veins.
A young man may have just died on national television. We’d have to cancel the game, which would jeopardize the structure and integrity of the upcoming playoffs. A chance?
From New York I ordered the game to continue as soon as paramedics removed Damar’s body. But the players and coaches bucked. Good. After a prolonged spell of on-field, on-screen chaos I “suspended” the game, knowing the rigidity of our schedule made modifications impossible.
The next day I made Troy Vincent take the heat for the debacle and ordered the Competition Committee to dream up the most ridiculous possible scheduling scenarios in the event the Chiefs and Bills played each other in the AFC title game.
Damar ultimately lived, but unfortunately — and unsurprisingly — the Bills choked in the Divisional Round. Nonetheless, I owed it to him and the thousands of prior victims to capitalize on this momentum.
On January 29, 2023, I personally rigged the AFC title game in favor of the Chiefs. First, we added a CGI referee and later multiple CGI penalty flags to the television broadcast. When color commentator Tony Romo expressed confusion on air I ordered CBS to silence him.
Everyone knew the fix was in. Of course Goodell wanted Mahomes in the Super Bowl. #NFLRIGGED trended on Twitter. Fans, players, and even coaches wondered aloud if the game they cherished was truly played on the level.
I thought maybe — just maybe — I’d finally achieved my goal. Finally convinced the world what I’d known for decades: football, and the NFL, were irredeemable relics from a violent, bygone past.
As the ensuing days dragged on and the excitement for this year’s Big Game intensified a sad realization took hold. I’d been kidding myself once again.
Two outstanding teams loaded with generational talents will take the field this Sunday. Across all media channels the game will shatter engagement records.
Revenue will increase.
The horrible, inalienable truth stares back at me now, Journal. Unflinching.
Nothing shakes our advertisers.
Nothing slakes America’s bloodlust.
Nothing breaks the shield.
First-timer? Take a test spin. Satisfied customer? Show me the money.
On Sunday morning, , and I are coming at you with a piece of satire so white-hot it automatically notifies the authorities when you read it.
Do not miss this one.
Then, on Friday, February 17 I’m sending out dueling posts. Free subscribers will receive a short, useful Substack tutorial and brief update on my paid subscription model.
Paid subscribers will partake in my first ever “Quarterly Shareholder Meeting,” which will offer a chance to ask me anything, provide feedback on what’s working, tell me what they’d like to see more of, and just have a great time on the internet with civilized friends (yes, I promise it’s still possible).
See you then!
P.S. Shoutout toof Stock Fiction for whipping up these killer barbed wire dividers! They perfectly capture the Field Research vibe.
This was my favorite of the war journals I've read so far. It disturbed me, but sadly, did not shock me. Which I'm guessing is the point. 😩 Thanks for the shout out. The barbed wire looks hot. Let me know if you want some with flames or entrails on it. You know I'm super easy to work with and have no "officially diagnosed" personality disorders. 😉 💜
I don't know anything about American football, other than the Miami Dolphins once had their mascot stolen and called Ace Ventura the pet detective to come solve the case, so none of the names or stories (other than Colin Kaepernick) meant anything to me. But still you made it interesting enough to read to the end. Well done.
By the way (1), how fucked up is Dana White's slap fight thing! What the fuck!
By the way (2), the governing bodies of football (soccer to you guys), nor the scandals the sport throws up, are any better than the NFL. Got our fair share of scumbag players too. For example, Mason Greenwood's just had charges dropped on his attempted rape case, simply because he paid off / intimidated witness(es). Despite us all hearing the fucking audio recording of the attempted rape. Now his club are just trying to gauge how badly their sponsors will react if they bring him back into the team. Meanwhile, Arab nation states are buying up all the clubs, ploughing money in, cooking the books (Man City look to be in trouble, but only because the other top teams, who are also all up to the same sort of shit are gaslighting cos they see an opportunity to get rid of a rival). And don't even get me started on the proposed Super League the big clubs are trying to bring in, which would make football over here like American sport, in which there's no promotion or relegation.
All elite sport is fucking disgusting, but until we stop watching it it'll continue to get worse and worse.
Good post, Amran.