On March 11, 2020, Goodell and a team of NFL executives convened with tech companies in the Bay Area as part of ongoing broadcast and streaming video talks. Goodell noticed the eerie emptiness of the vast Google campus, a sign that the company quickly understood the danger. On the same day, the World Health Organization classified COVID-19 as a pandemic.
On a trip to White Plains, NY, the group constantly checked their phones, trying to keep up with the rapidly changing sports landscape. The Big Ten announced that it would continue its men’s basketball tournament, only without spectators. The Ivy League canceled games for the rest of the year. In Oklahoma City, the NBA game was cleared after a warm-up and astonished fans were kicked out of the arena.
The NFL troupe had its own big concern – the planned draft extravaganza in Las Vegas seemed doomed. Voices outside the league have already urged the league to seek free agency and delay the draft. For them, moving forward was tone deaf.
Goodell had a different point of view.
“They had this North Star saying, ‘We’re 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 the clubs. We’re going to do right by our fans. We’re going to do the right thing and have our platform in a positive way. Use from.’ “
The commissioners hang out every day with Dr. Alan Sills, the league’s chief medical officer, and Jeff Miller, the executive vice president overseeing health issues. Challenge: How to draft and keep everyone safe. Goodell favored a virtual draft, as long as all teams could be on the same level. However, different parts of the country had different rules that allowed some facilities to remain open, others not.
Pushing within the league was vigorous, with the purists in particular strongly opposed to dramatically changing the draft. Goodell took calls from the concerned general managers and coaches. Although sympathetic to their grievances, he eventually advised them to explore it.
Chargers GM Tom Telesco was among the disbelievers.
“I’m not stubborn and inflexible; I can change,” Telesco said. “But when you’ve been part of drafts and running drafts for years, there’s a way to do it.”
Realizing the futility of trying to impress the league, Telesco decorated the dining room of their Newport Beach home with some surfboards to enhance the Southern California vibe, the team’s IT director had installed in their courtyard ( For security reasons, he didn’t bring her into the house) and made space for the Spectrum to park in the back. Some Internet technicians turned on the TV in their vans, sat outside on lawn chairs and watched the first two days of drafts. Telescos bought him pizza.
The three-day virtual draft turned into an unexpected sensation. It had a rough quality, with the commissioner announcing the names from the basement of his New York home. He increasingly changed into casual attire, from sports coats to sweaters to quarter-zips to T-shirts and eventually locked up in his leather recliner and ate M&Ms.
After all those hours in the basement, the younger production staff entertained themselves by pulling out hundreds of M&Ms, giving the impression that Goodell had grabbed them by the fistful. He swung a Mike Ditka bobblehead around the set in secret with every selection.
At times, Goodell stumbled upon his words and mispronounced some names, even as he repeatedly practiced off-camera. The kids and dogs made cameos in the background of the coaches and GMs. In later rounds, the commissioner at ease took part in the household chores between picks, replacing his storm doors with screens.
Later, Goodell receives a note from a GM with a changed approach.
“I just wanted to tell him that he was right and I was wrong,” Telesco said. “I’m glad we followed his lead.”