Roger Goodell Again Fails To Tackle Biggest Issues Facing NFL

Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell speaks during a media conference on Friday.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Even after we found out that former Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler suffered from the brain disorder CTE, and even as the Cleveland Browns try to get in touch with troubled quarterback Johnny Manziel after he allegedly threatened to kill his girlfriend and dragged her by the hair, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell remained placid and positive Friday during his annual media conference in San Francisco.

While these issues, and many others, were raised, Goodell addressed few of them meaningfully. If he had played in the NFL, he'd probably be the punter.

Should player deaths in high school football give parents pause? Goodell expressed regret, but said there's risk in everything, including "sitting on the couch."

Does he see a mixed message by establishing a Rooney Rule for league executives while continuing to underpay cheerleaders? "No I don't, these are employees of each club," Goodell said. "We encourage policies that properly compensate all employees."

Could the league allow medical marijuana? "I don't foresee a change in that policy clearly in the short term, but we'll continue to be in touch with our medical personnel," Goodell said.

Goodell's State of the NFL was, as always, about protecting the status quo; about not making any news that might distract from the American sports-a-palooza called the Super Bowl. A year after the NFL faced a real crisis of conscience forced by advertisers and legislators, this year's lingering health and safety issues were familiar turf. The NFL has been downplaying the risks for years -- nothing to see here.

It's a bit of theater. The 45 minutes carved out for the media (who, despite Goodell's statement last year, don't generally have access to the commissioner) included a question from a 12-year-old girl asking if she could play in the NFL. That's charming, but it's hardly heavy lifting for the commissioner.

Goodell is employed at the pleasure of the team owners. Were he to seriously advocate for pay equity for cheerleaders, or threaten to throw Manziel out of the league, Goodell risks a power struggle he likely wouldn't win. Instead, he speaks in banal platitudes and vaguely addresses the meat on each question before deferring to a higher authority.

And despite the latest findings on football's ties to brain injuries, he also assures parents that tackle football is still a worthy enterprise for their young sons.

This is the fundamental -- and arguably the most-pressing -- issue facing the league. New helmets and tacking techniques can go only so far in mitigating brain injuries. There are plenty of other sports that instill the values learned in athletics while conferring less risk.

Getting to the heart of what causes these injuries means changing the culture of the game and the violence that fans relish. It's a Catch-22: Addressing the issue to improve the health and safety of the players who make this sport so successful risks alienating the fans who gather to watch them.

That said, Goodell proposed meaningful change when he suggested players could be ejected after two personal fouls.

"We should take that out of the hands of the officials when it gets to that point," Goodell said. "They obviously will have to throw the flag. But when they do, we will look to see if we can reach an agreement on the conditions on which they be ejected."

It's an adjustment that would remove a headhunter from a game, or keep players in check before a game can get out of hand.

This State of the NFL media onference needs more specifics like that, or even just basic acknowledgement that the underlying issues are on the NFL's conscience. Does Goodell ever lose sleep over a player like Stabler? Or Junior Seau? Or Mike Webster?

In the meantime, the NFL is maximizing all the revenue it can, whether it means putting games in London and Mexico to stoke foreign fans, or extending Thursday night football broadcasts. Profits now, pay the class-action settlement later?

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