THERE WAS A PAUSE. It was Aug. 9, inside Roger Goodell’s sixth-floor office at the NFL’s Park Avenue headquarters in New York City — down the hall, past the executives’ offices and his assistant’s desk, and through a large, thick wooden door that is both imposing and usually left open to serve as a welcome. Goodell huddled over a speakerphone with general counsel Jeff Pash. On the other end was Jerry Jones. Adhering to the protocol of giving owners a 48-hour heads-up before a major disciplinary issue involving their team is announced, Goodell and Pash informed Jones that after a 13-month domestic violence inquiry, the Dallas Cowboys’ star running back, Ezekiel Elliott, would face punishment — a six-game suspension.
The line went quiet. Seconds passed. Goodell’s decision was an unconscionable violation of trust, Jones later told associates, because he believed that the commissioner had assured him this past spring that there would be no suspension. Jones saw in Elliott a genuine opportunity, a player so good that he had made Jones believe that this year he just might win a Super Bowl for the first time since 1996. His anger was palpable. Finally, according to sources with direct knowledge of the call, Jones broke the silence. He aimed his words not only at Goodell’s decision but also at his role as judge, jury and executioner in the case.
“I’m gonna come after you with everything I have,” Jones said. Then he mentioned Deflategate. “If you think Bob Kraft came after you hard, Bob Kraft is a p—y compared to what I’m going to do.”
Nobody knows what Jones is going to do. But at the age of 58, Goodell is fighting to keep his job. In public, he looks fresh and energetic, and he is more resolute than ever to leave with a legacy of having come close to fixing football’s long-standing issues. Up close, though, his face has changed due to relentless stress; it is now sallow and lined and tired. Roger Goodell is in a battle few saw coming, with the league’s membership teetering on an all-out, unprecedented civil war.