Roger Goodell took the stage for his annual Super Bowl press conference just after 2 p.m. ET. When we finally see the most powerful man in the NFL, it’s always a shock that his speech is halting and his voice cracks slightly. Though he’s the son of a U.S. senator, Goodell talks like a politician reading his resignation speech.
But this obscures Goodell’s real skill, which is apparent when reporters start asking him questions. Every year, there’s a hope that some kind of righteous pro-football-writer vengeance will be exacted upon Goodell at the Super Bowl. And every year, Goodell dodges potholes, exploits sloppy questions, and slips punches, even when they’re haymakers thrown by guys from Boston. If anybody’s going to corner Goodell, it won’t be in a press-conference setting. The questions may be righteous, but his answers are the kind a politician would applaud.
Early in the press conference, the Los Angeles Times’ Sam Farmer rose. Farmer is a Super Bowl press-conference legend. Every year for two decades, he asked when L.A. was getting another team. Today — with the Rams and Chargers in town — he said: “I’m tempted to ask: When will Los Angeles stop getting NFL teams?”
Farmer asked about the Raiders going to San Diego if their Las Vegas plans evaporated. Goodell flashed his passive voice: “We were disappointed to have to leave San Diego. We couldn’t get a stadium done. As you know, we had a referendum last November that did not pass, by the voters. And I think for any team to relocate to San Diego at this point in time, we’re going to have a find a solution to that stadium problem.” Notice blame for the “problem” is not assigned to anyone, least of all team president and CEO Dean Spanos.
Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune was up next. He asked if the NFL could have done more to keep the Chargers at home. Goodell replied: “As you know, this is not a new issue.” “As you know” is one of Goodell’s favorite catchphrases. A schmoozing politician might use the same tic to flatter a reporter by suggesting shared knowledge. Goodell uses it to remind the reporter of the context he has left out of the question.
Again and again, Goodell took a thorny, provocative question and massaged it into a question he wanted to answer. Asked by The Washington Post’s Mark Maske about changing the league’s medical marijuana policy, he noted that the players union hadn’t put forth a formal proposal. (This is a politician’s answer — I can’t comment on something I haven’t seen.) Then Goodell said he’d love to come to the table and start talking about an extension to the collective bargaining agreement — a CBA, of course, that was extremely tilted toward the league.
Goodell can flash withering sarcasm, as he did at Rachel Nichols two years ago. (When Nichols asked if it was kosher for the NFL and the Patriots to pay for an “independent” investigator, Goodell snapped, “Somebody has to pay them, Rachel, unless you’re volunteering …”) Today, when ProFootballTalk’s Michael David Smith asked why Barstool Sports wasn’t credentialed for the Super Bowl walk-up, Goodell said he didn’t know anything about it. Then he gestured at the expansive meeting room and said, “I think you can see by looking around we have pretty open arms.”
Tom Shattuck of the Boston Herald asked why mentions of Donald Trump were scrubbed from the transcripts of Monday’s media festivities. Again, Goodell claimed to know nothing about it — even though the story was in The New York Times. His answer was perfectly senatorial: “I am not aware of anything being deleted from transcripts or anything else.”
Goodell got two more questions about Trump. John Sutcliffe, an ESPN reporter in Mexico, asked if the NFL could “help build a better relationship between Mexico and the U.S. and not necessarily build other things” — a.k.a. a border wall. The New York Times’ Ken Belson noted that the NFL had stayed silent on Trump’s immigration ban while the NBA had spoken out.
Here, Goodell was at his most political — which is to say apolitical. He wouldn’t mutter a word against Trump. He instead turned to the healing power of football. “We have a unique position to have an event on Sunday,” Goodell said, “that will bring the world together.”
Because Goodell is mostly inaccessible to the media — and totally unaccountable to it — the Super Bowl press conference crackles with conspiracy theories. Two years ago, when I attended, a veteran NFL reporter huddled with me afterward and said he’d noticed that the PR men looking for questions from the crowd swerved away from unfriendly voices. This year, there was a conspiracy theory that Goodell’s press conference was moved from its usual Friday slot to Wednesday so that late-arriving reporters would be shut out. (Never mind that if you want to bury a news conference, there’s no better cemetery than Friday afternoon.)
Boston reporters had their own theory: that Goodell was avoiding them. Boston reporters had asked only two of the last 52 questions at Super Bowl press conferences, according to Herald writer Jeff Howe. Goodell seemed to know this. Today, he called on four Boston reporters, another from Providence, and one Boston-media expat, MMQB’s Albert Breer. He seemed to be saying, Go for it.
“My question is of course about Deflategate,” said the Globe’s Ben Volin, the Bostonite who went first. Volin asked what Goodell made of Robert Kraft’s comments that the commissioner had gotten “bad advice” about the scandal. Goodell cited the “process” of the investigation and droned on.
Up next was Dan Shaughnessy, the Globe columnist. He noted that Goodell had been avoiding Gillette Stadium (presumably so he wouldn’t be booed) and said any alternate explanation “strains all credibility.” Shaughnessy asked Goodell if the situation was “awkward.”
The phrasing offered Goodell an easy out: “I would tell you it’s not awkward at all for me.” Which, of course, is not exactly the point.
It was only when Shaughnessy shouted a follow-up that Goodell made news of a sort: “If I’m invited back to Foxboro, I’ll come.”
Tom Curran, of CSN New England, tried to go broader: “There seems to be an erosion of public trust in you and your office. Do you acknowledge that?” Goodell did not acknowledge that. But he also didn’t say he didn’t acknowledge it, which would have provided a sound bite to run on eternal loop on WEEI. Instead, Goodell cooed, “The thing you have to do every day is earn that trust …”
Kelly Sullivan, from Providence’s WPRI, asked if Goodell had talked to Tom Brady this season. Watch Goodell climb to the moral high ground: “I don’t disclose when I talk to players or communicate with them … I am not going to take that outside of the circle.” And thus Brady, a player who clearly loathes Goodell, is held out as a possible phone buddy.
Goodell made news only in the spots he wanted to. He gave a meaty answer to Ian Rapoport’s question about what the league could do to make games quicker after a season of falling ratings: It could shrink the break between the extra point and kickoff; reduce the number of ad breaks a quarter from five to four; etc.
But, mostly, Goodell lasered in on holes in reporters’ questions. When Breer asked if he’d been welcome at Foxboro this year, Goodell asked, “By whom?” When a Bloomberg News reporter said Goodell was outspoken about a goal of $25 billion in revenue, Goodell corrected him: “I really haven’t been outspoken on it. I’ve been asked about it.”
To say Goodell won the 45-minute session — which included one question from a kid in the audience and another asking if George H.W. Bush would perform the pregame coin flip — isn’t to congratulate him. It’s merely to say the better venue to dig into Goodell is the investigative piece. Goodell has no interest in matching wits with reporters, and thus accidentally revealing himself. He merely wants to run out the clock.
If you’re Goodell, of course, 45 minutes in a free-fire zone that doesn’t result in much usable material counts as a win. After a PR man brought the session to a close, Goodell stepped out from behind the podium and posed with the Lombardi Trophy while cameras clicked away. He was grinning like a champion.