NEW ORLEANS – And on Friday, Roger Goodell emerged from hiding. For a week, the NFL's commissioner has been exiled from his Super Bowl, ducking into dark cars and riding behind a line of wailing police motorcycles. His meetings in the city that hates him have been with safe subjects – team owners, union officials and the people with whom he worked to rebuild the Superdome.
When he emerged for his grand media conference at week's end it was less a celebration of his imperial power and more the appearance of a dictator in the throes of revolution. Outside the Ernest Morial Convention Center, New Orleans rages, still upset over the bounty scandal. His name is no good in the city's restaurants. He's been pinned to dartboards, put in compromising positions on Mardi Gras floats and even ordered to eternal damnation on a banner that has danged from the side of the Superdome he helped save. His players mock him. His suspensions have been overturned. Six and one half years into his regime he is a leader besieged.
"Do you feel like you are behind enemy lines?" a television reporter asked him on Friday.
Goodell forced a smile. It didn't seem convincing.
The questions came in an all-out assault for him the way they never did for former commissioner Paul Tagliabue. When Tagliabue stood at the lectern with the league's logo, the media conference meandered from queries about stadium financing to replay issues to the NFL's long-held dream of placing teams in European cities. On Friday, Goodell went nearly half an hour before taking a question about anything other than the violent game over which he presides.
And it's easy to see how little Goodell has ever had a chance. He did this to himself.
His instinct when problems arise is to create a public relations Band-Aid. This might work once, but after a time the Band-Aid on top of another Band-Aid on top of another creates a wad of adhesive that doesn't stick. This has happened with player conduct and player safety, and every other issue that has come along. The response has been an instant policy without clearly planned solutions.
But Goodell, who probably thought he was stepping into the sunny world of Tagliabue, never saw the firestorm racing over the hills. None of them did around the NFL. By the time it hit, they were powerless to do anything. Now football's very existence dangles on the brink.
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You can't blame Goodell for missing the signs. They grew in tiny tao protein deposits in the brains of players. Maybe they never would have been found if not for a curious medical examiner from Nigeria who was on duty in Pittsburgh when the body of former Steelers center Mike Webster appeared in his office. The doctor sliced open Webster's brain, found the telltale signs of head trauma that would come to paralyze the league.
Those microscopic deposits hit Goodell in his first few months on the job as commissioner. They are still chasing him, growing in the brains of all those former players who stutter while talking, forget grocery lists and wonder if they too are marked for dementia. The tao protein deposits stick, link-by-link, in a string of lawsuits that clatter at the door of the league's vast financial reserve.
Everything Goodell must do now is designed to hold off the marching lawsuits. There's no running now.
The way out is impossible to see. Goodell kept talking about the need for players to be honest with doctors when they get a concussion, but when confronted with the case of 49ers quarterback Alex Smith who was upfront about his concussions, missed a game and lost his job, the commissioner didn't have a good answer. There isn't one. Football safety and football culture will forever butt heads.
"It's very important to maintain our integrity and our brand," he said at one point Friday.
This is, of course, the lone mandate of the NFL – save its name at any cost. The Saints paid dearly when their bounty program was unearthed at the same time of the lawsuits explosion. Obstruction made the punishment worse but the hammer was coming down no matter what.
The commissioner talked tough Friday. He talked about safety as if it was something the league can legislate. He even suggested stronger penalties for hard hits. "A suspension gets through to them," he said of the players.
But the tao protein deposits keep growing, just as they have been probably growing since the first leather helmets were strapped on players' heads. Maybe it was the fortune of men like Tagliabue, Pete Rozelle and Bert Bell that a medical examiner from Nigeria wasn't working the slow shift in Pittsburgh on the eve of their tenures.
The lawsuits are massing now. Too many to count. Such dumb luck for Roger Goodell to come along just as they were being discovered.
It's like he never had a chance.
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