Can Roger Goodell Save Football?

Concussions. Bounties. Replacement refs. and now another player tragedy. For the NFL commissioner, the problems keep piling up

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Chip Litherland for TIME

Goodell mingles with fans in Jacksonville, Fla. The Senator's son has a politician's touch

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Goodell has taken the ball. The commissioner is already rewriting the playbook of the game. After years of downplaying the dangers of concussions, the NFL has instituted policies and rules to reduce the risk of long-term injury. But things like sanctions for dangerous hits--especially the punishment handed down to the New Orleans Saints for allegedly running a bounty system that gave cash rewards for injuring opposing players--and stricter return-to-play guidelines after concussions are just the beginning of a safety-first orientation.

Kickoffs, for instance, could get the boot, even though the kicker placing the ball on the tee, the dash-and-crash downfield under the kick and the theatrical returns for touchdowns are a signal that Sunday is under way. From changing tackling techniques to altering the stance of offensive linemen so they don't launch themselves headfirst into opponents, everything is up for discussion. And Goodell sits at the center of the table.

The Emperor of Pigskin

Wearing his navy blue NFL windbreaker collar up against a cool late-October morning--it's the day before Hurricane Sandy blitzed the New York City area-- Goodell mingles with New York Jets tailgaters in the MetLife Stadium parking lot. He signs every football, stops for every picture. "Hey, Commissioner, you want a kishke?" a fan asks Goodell, 53, holding up a beef intestine from behind a grill. Goodell--a fitness freak--politely declines the offal offer, saying he'd just eaten. The son of a U.S. Senator, he has the politician's touch for working a crowd. He shakes hands, tussles hair, slaps backs and helmets and gives out more bro hugs than Joe College at his fifth reunion.

Goodell may be the pope of our sporting religion, but here he's just another knucklehead passing through the parking lot. "My girlfriend is a Steelers fan," a man dressed in a Dolphins jersey--the Jets host Miami today--tells him. "And she'll hate me if I don't tell you. You hate James Harrison." Harrison, the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker, has racked up nearly $200,000 in fines for roughing up opposing players since the NFL started heavily penalizing more dangerous hits.

Harrison does not have any kind words for Goodell, nor for that matter do other NFL players. Harrison called Goodell a "crook" in Men's Journal and said, "If that man was on fire and I had to piss to put him out, I wouldn't do it." Goodell keeps his cool. "I don't hate him," he tells the fan. "He's just got to play by the same rules, that's all."

A huge guy wearing a Jets jersey says, "By the way, f--- the Saints," after someone snaps a photo of him and the commissioner. "Don't let them screw you." In March, Goodell suspended Saints coach Sean Payton for this season and team officials and players for significant chunks of time for participating in a bounty program. The penalties, some of which were later overturned by an appeals panel, burnished Goodell's image as a power-mad martinet. The commissioner, a stickler for player discipline since he took office in 2006, says football can't tolerate such a dangerous locker-room culture. Around New Orleans these days, "Go to Hell, Goodell" is a popular Cajun catchphrase.

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