Once upon a time, there was an air of gravitas about the NFL commissioner’s annual news conference during Super Bowl week.
The standing-room-only media crowd would grill a chain-smoking Pete Rozelle about the latest Al Davis suit or expansion rumor, or about that new intruder on the block, the USFL, and Rozelle would dispense an earnest response that the questioner could take back to his constituency.
Yes, Jacksonville would be a great place for an NFL franchise, Rozelle would say, lighting another cigarette. No, he’d answer later, the league doesn’t think the USFL’s $1.32-billion antitrust suit has a leg to stand on.
He was Pete Rozelle, and nobody in the media had any problem with that. His eventual successor, Paul Tagliabue, carried a lawyer’s civility to the Super Bowl week podium, and he, too, found a way to carve through the annual questioning with equal facades of candor and concern.
Now, however, the NFL commissioner in residence, Roger Goodell, doesn’t even try. His demeanor is chilly. His answers sound scripted. As he showed Wednesday, he refuses to budge from the company line.
After all, he is the line. He draws it, as the owners compel him to.
Six times during Goodell’s 45 minutes at the microphone, he was asked questions relating to the New England Patriots or the Deflate-gate controversy.
“We had a violation,” Goodell said, after the first question. “ We went through a process. We applied the discipline in accordance with our process.
“It was litigated, as you know, extensively, and validated by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. So, we’re moving on from that.”
Incorrect. The appeals court only ruled on Goodell’s collectively bargained right to weigh the Patriots’ guilt and impose the penalty.
Media members from Boston persisted, asking why Goodell seemed to be dodging a return to a Patriots home game.
He is dodging nothing, Goodell answered, saying, “If I am invited back to Foxboro, I will come.”
Hmm. The NFL commissioner needs to be invited to attend games?
Other subjects drew similar roundabout answers.
On the Raiders moving to Las Vegas: “That’s part of the relocation process.”
On how the NFL reconciles moving to the nation’s gambling capital: “Gambling exists throughout our world.”
On how the league seemed to facilitate the Chargers’ move from San Diego: “Relocations are painful. We couldn’t get a stadium done.”
On the refugee issue that other leagues are addressing: “We have a unique position to have an event on Sunday that will bring the world together.”
Goodell was also asked where his office’s investigation of the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott stands. An Ohio city attorney officially closed the alleged domestic violence case four months ago.
“We have highly trained, highly skilled investigators that are looking into this,” Goodell said. “We do not put timetables or pressures on them to make those decisions. At this point, there is no timetable.”
In other words, the league is taking its time because it wants everyone to know it’s taking its time.
Deflate-gate. The Bradys. San Diego. The Vegas Raiders.
The questions were timely, but the commissioner’s answers almost sounded scripted. He did, however, appear this year in an open-collared shirt — if not an open mind.
In fact, Goodell was asked about his own eroding image, among the paying customers as well as his league’s players.
“Be transparent, making sure people understand the decisions you make,” Goodell said.
Not that the NFL commissioner’s office cares whether the public or the players understand anything.
Roger Goodell works for the owners. He is the company line.