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Jerry Sullivan: A banner day for the NFL's spinmeister

MINNEAPOLIS — Wednesday was a very good day for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. He did a typically deft spin job at his annual Super Bowl press conference, and the league made a pile of money.

Earlier in the day, the NFL and Fox announced a five-year partnership that will give Fox the right to televise 11 Thursday night games next season. Depending on the source, the deal could be worth between $550 and $660 million per year for Goodell's bosses.

That's a hefty increase over last year, despite declining TV ratings for the NFL and the fact that most players despise the Thursday games, which often require them to play a physically punishing sport with only three days' rest.

This comes on the heels of a report that NFL concussions in 2017 were at the highest level since the league began tracking them five years ago. Also, injury rates on Thursdays were higher than Sundays for the first time since 2014.

"We always work to make the game safer," Goodell said in his State of the League address. "Out of the last five years where we've kept sophisticated injury data, only this year showed an uptick, which wasn't even statistically significant."

Thursday injuries went up to 6.9 a game from 6.3 on Sundays, which is roughly 10 percent. I'm sure Goodell and the owners find it "statistically significant" that Thursday night rights fees went up by that much.

But that's Goodell's mission, to dodge and spin the tough issues in public. He does so much spinning, he should have webbing shooting out of his wrists, like Spider-Man.

His 37-minute session was easier than some in the past. He didn't have any major sexual assault cases to deflect, or any Patriots cheating controversies. So he doesn't face the horror of handing the MVP award to Tom Brady if the Pats win again.

Goodell was asked about his own contract, a five-year deal that's reportedly worth $200 million – with the great majority tied to bonuses subject to the owners' approval. He was asked about reports that he expected this contract to be his last as commissioner.

"I can't tell you exactly what I said, but I have not given any consideration at this time to a new contract," he said. "I'm thinking about the challenge that we in the league have, how we can continue to grow this league and how we can make it better."

I'm not privy to the incentives, though it's safe to assume they involve league profits. He deserves some reward for taking the bullets for a violent sport that is losing popularity with many Americans but remains a TV powerhouse and a national gambling playpen.

Goodell artfully dodged questions about politics and race. Someone asked a two-parter: Would the league consider having teams remain in the locker rooms during the anthem, and has he said anything to President Trump about his stinging rebukes to the kneeling players?

"The answer to your second question is no," he said. "The answer to your first question is I don't know what we'll consider in the offseason. I'm involved with the Super Bowl."

Why would he defend his players against Trump's criticism? When Trump mentioned standing for the anthem at his State of the Union on Tuesday, he got a standing ovation. It plays well to his base, and Goodell shares a lot of that same base.

Goodell was asked about the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview black candidates for coaching and GM openings, and the notion that the Raiders hired Jon Gruden before honoring the rule. Goodell said an league investigation proved the Raiders had followed the rules.

He was asked why the hiring of black head coaches, GMs and team presidents has remained flat since his hiring in 2006 (there are still no black presidents). Goodell said the league has been successful in helping minority coaches and executives to advance their careers, though they need to do more.

This week, the Eagles' Torrey Smith was the latest NFL player to lament that Colin Kaepernick is still without a team after his protest. Goodell was asked if there was anything he could do to persuade the owners to give Kaepernick a chance.

"Listen, I've been very clear on this before," Goodell said, "that all the clubs individually have to make their own decisions about who's on the roster and who's not on the roster. Colin, as you know, has filed a grievance, so I'm not going to talk specifically about that case."

In a recent interview, Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre said he would rather see his grandkids play golf than football because of the concussion risk. Favre has produced a documentary on the subject, which he termed a "scary issue" for football's long-term future.

Goodell said concussions are a major focus for the league (after years of denial) and said they're making the game safer at every level. He said he recently told a high school class that the game was safer than when he played.

It's not a very high bar for football to be safer than it was 40-50 years ago, when players routinely stayed on the field after getting their "bell rung" and there was very little talk about concussions in the sport.

Asked about the state of officiating, the commissioner naturally defended the guys in the striped shirts, who didn't have the most distinguished season.

"I've been in the league 36 years," Goodell said, "and every year I hear the refrain about officiating. It goes with my philosophy which is, 'I'm never satisfied.' We can always get better. Our officiating can get better, and so can all of us.

"I think our officiating is outstanding. I believe that with technology the way it is, we see things we never saw even 10 years ago. That makes their job that much harder, but I think they're extraordinary professionals."

He became most animated when discussing the controversial catch rule, and his determination to refine the rule, which has long been a source of discontent among players, coaches and fans who are constantly confused about what exactly constitutes a legal catch in the sport.

"We had several players in the NFL office a few weeks ago, several coaches and officials," Goodell said. "And we spent three hours, looked through 150 different plays and tried to look for what it is we think should be a catch and what the rule should be to deem what is a catch on the field."

The NFL competition committee will meet regularly over the next two months. There's a chance the owners will be presented with a proposed new catch rule in March. Goodell said the league will also look at replay, and ways to improve the game presentation and "make it more attractive" with fewer stoppages.

Goodell talked a lot about "content," which is what the networks pay billions for and what matters most to the owners. You see, when it comes to the way the NFL product looks on TV, which cuts to the very heart of the game, the $200 million man wastes no time.

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