HOUSTON – The NFL has done its best to downplay any controversy and political talk during Super Bowl week. The league has long been quite adept at controlling the message, even before the age of alternative facts.
According to The New York Times, the NFL did not include a single mention of the name "Trump" in transcripts of Opening Night interviews to the media, despite the fact that several players, most notably Tom Brady, were asked about the president in the recent aftermath of his ban on immigration.
In his press conference Wednesday, Commissioner Roger Goodell said he wasn't aware of anything being deleted from the official interview transcripts, because that's not within his purview. He also dodged a question about Trump's immigration policy.
"As commissioner of the NFL, I’m singularly focused on the Super Bowl right now," Goodell said. He said the Super Bowl “will bring the world together.”
That's a noble idea, one that has infused the music of pop icon Lady Gaga, who will perform the halftime show Sunday. So I figured it would be interesting to attend her press conference at noon Thursday to see if Gaga, an outspoken critic of the new president, would make any incendiary political comments.
Trump referred to Goodell as "a weak guy," "stupid" and a "dope" when the Times asked for his opinion on the Deflategate scandal in 2015. I wonder what the president thinks of Lady Gaga being chosen as the league's halftime act in one of the nation's most diverse cities, a community in which one-quarter of the citizens are foreign-born.
It would have been nice to get her opinion. Gaga, an anti-bullying crusader, has called Trump "one of the most notorious bullies we have ever witnessed." On the morning after his election, she went to Trump Tower, stood on the side of a sanitation truck and held up a sign that read "Love trumps hate."
But it was clear that the NFL wanted to avoid any ugly political discourse during Gaga's appearance, which was less a press conference than a pep rally, a slick commercial for the NFL and Pepsi Zero Sugar, the lead sponsor.
Close to 1,000 people packed the main ballroom in the convention center, more than had attended Goodell's press conference the day before. Very few were real journalists. The questioners were determined in advance and only one of the 13 anointed inquisitors was from a newspaper or major TV or online sports entity.
It was hardly surprising, then, that the name "Trump" wasn't uttered once during the half-hour session. The questions came from the likes of "Access Hollywood," "Entertainment Tonight," "Nickelodeon" and "Inside Edition."
Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles asked Gaga if she planned to hang upside down in her 13-minute show. Former Giants star Osi Umenyiora, representing NFL UK, asked her to recite the words from "Paparazzi." Hall of Famer and broadcaster Terry Bradshaw wanted to know if his favorite Gaga tune, "Edge of Glory," would be performed. Gaga, naturally, wanted the show to be a surprise.
"This is a big, big win with my grandma right now," Gaga gushed, "because half of my family are massive Steelers fans and she's wigging out right now sitting on the couch."
"Is she a single lady?" Bradshaw said, eliciting guffaws from the crowd.
Lady Gaga, whose given name is Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, asked Bradshaw to wish her grandmother, Ronnie Bissett, a happy birthday. He obliged and said "That's $50 you owe me."
Bradshaw then presented a football to Gaga's mother, Cynthia Germanotta, who was there in the crowd.
That was the high point of the affair. Gaga is an entertainer, after all, and the event was a celebration of entertainment (and Pepsi, of course). She mentioned Beyonce and Michael Jackson as musical inspirations, and Tony Bennett, whose duets with Lady Gaga are cultural treasures.
Still, the columnist in me wished for at least one invigorating exchange about politics and Trump and immigration and fake news. She has, after all, called Trump a "dangerous man" looking to "divide and wreck our democracy."
Trump has played golf with Brady, kissed Bill Belichick (really, it's there online) and has been a close friend to Pats owner Robert Kraft. That makes politics fair game during an especially volatile time in American politics and culture.
Lady Gaga couldn't be faulted for playing along with the NFL. I suspect she wanted to keep politics separate from the country's largest sporting event. But the social crusader, the woman who urged electors to go against the voters and not put Trump in office, was a bit diminished by the scripted, superficial nature of the event.
But she has always used her enormous stature as an entertainer to send a message about equality and the essential promise of America, that anyone can succeed here. She was asked if her halftime show could help unify the country, as if 13 minutes in the middle of a football game could so such a thing.
"Well, I don't know if I will succeed in unifying America," she said. "You'll have to ask America when it's over. The only statement I'll make in the halftime show is the message I've been making throughout my career. I believe in a passion for inclusion.
"I believe in the spirit of equality, and the spirit of this country, one of love and compassion and kindness."
Read into that what you will.