This season, Roger Goodell had an audacious plan to fix his likability problem. He went into hiding. He rarely spoke to the press. But since NFL commissioner isn’t a work-remotely job, Goodell appeared in Atlanta at Wednesday’s Super Bowl press conference. The maddening hour that followed proved Goodell failed to solve a central problem: He is still Roger Goodell.
Goodell took the stage promptly at 1 p.m. ET. He was tieless and wearing a classically Goodellian tight-fitting suit. He gestured a lot, like a young toastmaster who was told he ought to talk more with his hands.
Goodell, I regret to report, didn’t spend his gap year studying comedy. The NFL’s product, he said in a preamble, is available on “mobile, social, and, yes, even on Fortnite.” Goodell paused for a half second at the end of that sentence, as if expecting laughs. No one laughed. And that was his best line of the afternoon.
The commissioner’s Super Bowl press conference is a strange ballet. At the risk of saying the words “Donald Trump,” I think sports fans—and a few media members—have the same expectations that Trump watchers have when the press squares off with the president. They expect that if you ask Goodell a tough question, he’ll break down into a sobbing confession and admit to some nefarious deeds. Goodell never does. He never even answers a question.
The main item on the docket was the uncalled pass-interference penalty in the NFC championship game. Jeff Duncan of NOLA.com asked Goodell to address the play, discuss any repercussions, and specify what changes would prevent another miscue. (Two- and three-part questions are the norm at the commissioner’s press conference, as the reporters fear Goodell could regain his invisibility powers in the middle of the session.)
“Whenever officiating is part of any kind of discussion postgame,” Goodell said, “it’s never a good outcome for us.”
Notice what Goodell didn’t say: We screwed up. A bad call should never change the result of a big game. We’ll get it right. It was as if Goodell were madly scrambling to avoid a Mike Florio headline: “Goodell: ‘We screwed up.’”
Several more reporters tried to tug a more robust statement out of Goodell: Newsday’s Bob Glauber, The Washington Post’s Mark Maske, USA Today’s Jarrett Bell. Finally, ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio said that people “want to hear in your own words” what Goodell thought of the play.
“It’s a play that should be called,” were the stiffest words Goodell would say.
It’s tempting to accuse Goodell of constituency-straddling—of trying to placate Sean Payton, the Rams, and the beleaguered refs. But Goodell did plenty of side-taking on behalf of the refs. The refs are “men and women of high integrity,” Goodell said, adding, “I don’t think the game has ever been officiated at this level. It’s extraordinary.”
There are plenty of things to dislike about Roger Goodell. But what stands out most is his baffling refusal to pick up his trident and take a firm stand on anything. Citing an article published today, the AP’s Barry Wilner noted the league’s paucity of minority offensive coordinators and QB coaches—which are now the gateway jobs to becoming a head coach.
Who’s not for more minority offensive coaches? Goodell seems to be for it, but he has a way of hiding a moral crusade under a load of bureaucratese. He defended the Rooney Rule and cited some forthcoming discussions.
This is another Goodell distraction technique. When confronted with a thorny issue, Goodell says he is studying it. The future of linebacker Reuben Foster, who was charged with domestic violence but then saw the charge dropped? The league is investigating. Ex-Chief Kareem Hunt? Ditto. A possible comeback for wide receiver Josh Gordon? The league will “evaluate that at the right time.” The right time is never during the annual commissioner’s press conference.
The press conference has a couple of great traditions. The Los Angeles Times’ Sam Farmer used to get up every year and ask about the future of football in L.A. Now that L.A. has football, Farmer asked about where the Raiders would play next season.
There are hyper-local questions. Where does China rank in the NFL’s favorite countries? (Very high. There should be some very exciting announcements shortly.) When does London get a franchise, a reporter from Sky Sports asked. (Still studying that. Probably not right now.) How is Atlanta doing with its Super Bowl hosting duties? (It’s great. Just great. More to come.)
At nearly every commissioner’s press conference, a child is allowed to ask a question. Today, a boy, with dark socks pulled up high, stood on a chair at my left. He asked Goodell how he balanced being football’s supreme leader and being a fan. Goodell did not see a conflict between those two jobs. It was the only time Goodell said “good question.”
Lord knows transcript-massaging NFL insiders will discover some incremental news here, but I found two definitive statements. Goodell doesn’t like the idea of adding an eighth official (which NFL.com’s Judy Battista asked about). And Goodell doesn’t see placing a Super Bowl in Hawaii or a foreign country (a question from a reporter with Canada’s Disability Channel).
Toward the end of the session, CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora rose to ask a question about Colin Kaepernick’s activism. He asked it in a clever, all-encompassing way: “Are you comfortable collectively with how the league has responded to that and do you have any concerns how history might look upon that?”
“Our clubs are the ones that make decisions on players that they want to have on their roster,” Goodell said. “They make that individually. They make that in the best interests of their team. And that’s something that we as the NFL take pride in.”
I think it’s the word “pride” that got me. Not just pride in the NFL’s decentralized government. Pride in the fact that someone else will have to answer that question and that the commissioner’s office bears not one iota of responsibility for the league’s great shame. With that, Goodell regained invisibility. See ya next year!