On March 11, 2020, Goodell and a team of NFL executives convened in the Bay Area with tech companies as part of the ongoing broadcast and streaming video negotiations. Goodell noticed the eerie emptiness of the sprawling Google campus, a sign the company grasped the danger early. That same day, the World Health Organization classified COVID-19 as a pandemic.
On the trip back to White Plains, N.Y., the group continually checked their phones, trying to keep up with the rapidly changing sports landscape. The Big Ten announced it would continue its men's basketball tournament, only without spectators. The Ivy League canceled sports for the rest of the year. In Oklahoma City, an NBA game was scrubbed after warm-ups and stunned fans streamed out of the arena.
The NFL coterie had its own major worry — the planned draft extravaganza in Las Vegas seemed doomed. Voices outside the league already urged the league to delay free agency and the draft. To them, moving forward was tone deaf.
Goodell had a different viewpoint.
"He had this North Star of, 'We are going to get through this,' " said Peter O'Reilly, the league's executive vice president of club business and league events. "It was, 'We're going to follow the docs and the science. We're going to do right by the players and clubs. We're going to do right by our fans. We're going to model the right behavior and use our platform in a positive way.' "
The commissioner huddled every day with Dr. Allen Sills, the league's chief medical officer, and Jeff Miller, an executive vice president who oversees health issues. The challenge: how to conduct a draft and keep everyone safe. Goodell favored a virtual draft, as long as all teams could be on equal footing. However, different parts of the country had different rules with some facilities staying open, others not.
The pushback within the league was vehement, especially from purists resolutely opposed to changing the draft that dramatically. Goodell fielded calls from concerned general managers and coaches. Though sympathetic to their complaints, he ultimately advised them to figure it out.
Chargers GM Tom Telesco was among the nonbelievers.
"I'm not stubborn and inflexible; I can change," Telesco said. "But when you're part of drafts and running drafts for years, there's one way of doing it."
Realizing the futility of trying to sway the league, Telesco decorated the dining room of his Newport Beach home with a couple of surfboards to accentuate the Southern California vibe, had the team's IT director set up in his courtyard (for safety reasons, he couldn't bring him into the house) and made room for Spectrum to park in back. A couple of internet technicians turned on the TV in their van, sat outside in lawn chairs and watched the first two days of the draft. The Telescos bought them pizza.
The three-day virtual draft evolved into an unexpected sensation. It had a rough-hewn quality, with the commissioner announcing the names from the basement of his New York home. He changed into increasingly casual attire, from sports coat to sweater to quarter-zip to T-shirt and eventually plopped into his leather recliner and ate M&M's.
Punchy after all those hours in the basement, the small production staff entertained themselves between picks by pouring out hundreds of M&M's, giving the impression Goodell had gorged them by the fistful. They clandestinely moved a Mike Ditka bobblehead around the set with every selection.
Occasionally, Goodell stumbled over his words and mispronounced some names, even those he repeatedly practiced off-camera. Kids and dogs made cameos in the background of coaches and GMs. In the later rounds, the relaxed commissioner attended to household chores between picks, replacing his storm doors with screens.
Later, Goodell got a note from a GM with a changed perspective.
"I just wanted to let him know that he was right and I was wrong," Telesco said. "I'm glad we followed his lead with that."