Don Van Natta Jr. wrote an extensive profile of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for ESPN the Magazine which you really should read. The profile touches on just about everything you ever wondered about Goodell–his motivations, his legendary temper, and his fears.
One the fears captured in the profile stems from the violent nature of the NFL today. And because of that violent nature, Goodell is said to be terrified that a player will eventually die on the field.
As part of his mission, Goodell often tells audiences a favorite story: More than a century ago, before there was an NFL, President Theodore Roosevelt saved football with the blunt force of his visionary leadership. In 1904, 18 student-athletes died playing the game, mostly from skull fractures. A devout fan, Roosevelt convened the coaches from Harvard, Yale and Princeton to a White House meeting. The innovations that were adopted — the forward pass, the founding of the NCAA — helped propel an endangered game into the modern era.
The history lesson not only places Goodell in Roosevelt’s shoes and the current worries about player safety into a historical context, it also portends one of his greatest fears: An NFL player is going to die on the field.
It’s happened only once. Lions wide receiver Chuck Hughes died of a heart attack late in a game on Oct. 24, 1971. Within the past year, Goodell has told friends privately that he believes if the game’s hard-knocks culture doesn’t change, it could happen again. “He’s terrified of it,” says a Hall of Fame player who speaks regularly with Goodell. “It wouldn’t just be a tragedy. It would be awfully bad for business.”
The fact that Goodell is said to be terrified of this means he thinks there’s a chance it could happen. And that explains some of the drastic moves he’s made to attempt to make the game much safer.