A few years into Roger Goodell's tenure as NFL commissioner, a grad school professor polled students on who was the most effective leader in the major sports. Goodell romped.
That was before the league locked out the players in 2011. Before the Saints' bounties scandal. Before the behavior of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson — and so many others — led to a stricter player conduct policy.
Before game officials were locked out. Before Tom Brady's suspension in "Deflategate." And before issues over head trauma and concussions brought player safety questions to the forefront.
A more recent informal survey by that professor saw Goodell finish a weak third behind the NBA's Adam Silver and PGA's Tim Finchem.
Yet, for all of the public (and players' association) angst regarding Goodell, who enters his second decade in charge on Thursday, he couldn't be held in higher esteem by most of the 32 team owners — his bosses.
"I know how passionate he is about the game, how committed he is," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones says. "He's spent his professional life on behalf of the National Football League. I've seen him under fire. He has made good decisions. We know what a tough job it is. That's been borne out and accentuated by the very criticism that he receives. He's in a job that has a lot of thankless aspects to it. ... I think he's exceeded any expectations that I might have had for him."
Here's where the NFL has gone in Goodell's decade.
The league to which Goodell, 57, has dedicated his entire adult life has never been more profitable. According to Forbes, the average worth of an NFL franchise is just under $2 billion. Jones' Cowboys are the world's most valuable sports franchise at $4 billion. The league's lowest-valued team at $1.4 billion, the Buffalo Bills, just signed a huge naming rights deal for its stadium.
Overall league revenues are approaching $13 billion; when Goodell replaced Paul Tagliabue in 2006, they were half that. Goodell wants to reach $25 billion in the next decade or so.
Perhaps helping reach that goal, the NFL's presence internationally has grown. It returns to Mexico City in November for Texans-Raiders in a sold-out Estadio Azteca. Three games are played annually in London, with the NFL branching out from Wembley to other stadia, and selling out.
TV AND NEW VENTURES
The NFL's availability has expanded significantly on TV and digitally under Goodell. Flexible scheduling on Sunday nights led to better matchups later in the schedule. A night game was added on Thanksgiving. CBS (now joined by NBC) jumped into the Thursday night package of games already on NFL Network.
Network TV deals are bringing in about $28 billion overall, and DirecTV's Sunday Ticket contract is worth another $1.5 billion a year to the NFL.
Last season, 46 of the top 50 TV shows were NFL games, with "Sunday Night Football" the most-watched prime-time program for the sixth consecutive fall season. So who is holding the upper hand when renewal talks begin?
Goodell also oversaw the expansion of the draft to three days, with the first three rounds in prime time, and has made it a traveling show. Two channels, ESPN and NFL Network, broadcast every selection.
"Roger's tenure has been one of tremendous growth for the NFL, and he has increased the impact the league has on American culture," says ESPN President John Skipper. "He has faced intense scrutiny in how he responds to every situation, including from ESPN, and to his credit, he has remained true to his principles and the results of that vision are, by any objective measure, decidedly positive."
The NFL also has found ways to monetize fantasy football, even as critics insist it's a form of gambling. And everyone knows how aggressively the NFL opposes gambling.
Goodell's popularity among the owners is unquestioned. Even the Patriots' Robert Kraft, a long-time confidant of Goodell's but a vocal opponent of the commissioner in the deflated footballs case that cost New England a first-round draft pick and $1 million, generally has been one of Goodell's biggest boosters on other matters.
Outside the NFL, his image has taken some heavy hits. While Goodell cites protecting the integrity of the game, the players' union, fans, and advocacy groups protest his decisions. Loudly.
Despite labor peace since 2011 (and through 2020), it has been an uneasy truce. The union challenges matters large and small — it's obligation, of course, in representing its players — and often makes noise about reopening the collective bargaining agreement.
Goodell insisted on keeping final authority over player discipline matters during the 2011 labor talks. As Goodell has erred, most notably in the Rice case with an initial two-game suspension so inappropriate it led to a new player conduct policy, the union has pounced. Several times, the NFL won in court. Several times, so did the union.
Every time, the public's opinion of the commissioner diminished.
The 2012 lockout of game officials was such a fiasco that following the "Fail Mary" call in Packers-Seahawks, a new contract quickly was worked out.
Goodell also has been betrayed by his investigative force, which performed well in Michael Vick's dog-fighting case, but struggled with the Saints' bounties. That saga ended with Tagliabue, of all people, serving as arbiter at Goodell's behest, voiding suspensions for four players.
Such incidents have damaged Goodell's standing with many fan bases, most notably in New England and New Orleans.
"They have proved to have a terrible track record when it comes to investigations," NFLPA spokesman George Atallah says.
Probably the biggest challenge now for the NFL under Goodell — until another oddball scandal hits — is identifying and treating head trauma. Not just for current players, but for retirees; the league reached a settlement with former players that is now worth about $1 billion.
Rules changes; the institution of comprehensive return-to-play protocols for all players evaluated for concussions; the hiring of independent medical professionals; advocacy for youth concussion laws in all 50 states; and financial investments in research all are positives of Goodell's administration.
But concerns about just how dangerous and health-affecting the sport is will continue to plague the NFL, which must find answers to any and all safety matters. Unquestionably, the end game always will lead to Goodell.
Sports Writer Schuyler Dixon contributed.