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In land of sunny NFL, dark clouds emerging

PHOENIX – Sometime late tonight at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, the curtain will go down on the 49th Super Bowl, bringing a merciful conclusion to the most difficult and controversial season in NFL history.

Roger Goodell admits it has been a “tough year” for him. The commissioner is probably praying that some epic calamity doesn’t occur, like the retractable roof getting stuck or the football exploding on the opening kickoff because it was severely overinflated as a safeguard against the Patriots.

A tough year?

Goodell has been under constant siege. Women’s groups have vilified him for his weak response to the Ray Rice domestic abuse case. He has been ripped for employing lawyers with league ties to investigate the case. He’s at odds with the players union for pushing their new conduct policy without their full support.

There’s lingering skepticism of his belated concern on concussions. According to one study, half the parents in the nation don’t want their children to play football. Another study revealed that NFL retirees who began playing football before age 12 were more susceptible to brain damage than those who hadn’t begun early.

Mark Cuban, the outspoken NBA owner, predicts that the NFL is fat, greedy and “10 years from implosion.” Sen. John McCain says the league should revisit its entire PR scheme. A lengthy article in the current GQ Magazine paints Goodell as a servile extension of NFL owners, particularly New England owner Robert Kraft.

Of course, even Kraft is at odds with the commissioner now. Kraft arrived at the Super Bowl with guns blazing, announcing the moment he touched ground that the NFL should apologize if their fumbling probe into his team’s supposed deflation of footballs doesn’t produce any evidence that the Pats cheated.

So it’s no surprise that reporters grilled the commissioner about his job at Friday’s annual commissioner’s press conference. Goodell was asked if he felt his job was secure, and whether the owners might – gasp! – cut his annual compensation, which was estimated at $44 million two years ago.

It’s worth noting that Kraft, who sits on the NFL’s compensation committee, did not attend the commissioner’s conference as he generally has in the past.

“That’s up to the owners,” Goodell said. “They evaluate my performance. They evaluate my compensation every year. I don’t argue.”

Goodell put the best face on the league, trumpeting the NFL’s recent advances in domestic violence awareness, concussion awareness, and its outreach to youth football players and their parents around the country.

“We’re in a good place in knowing and learning and having a lot more humility,” Goodell said. “As an organization and as an individual, it’s been a tough year, but a year of progress. I’m excited about the future.”

Goodell actually said “learning and being more human, having a lot more humility.” The official transcript left out the “more human” part, striking the mere suggestion that the beneficent commish lacked humanity.

He said “integrity” several times, as if coached to do so. It’s hard to take anything he says at face value nowadays. Asked if he should be more available to the press, as the Seahawks’ Richard Sherman said in defense of Marshawn Lynch’s media evasions, Goodell said he was available to the media “almost every day.”

Tell that to some of the more hard-hitting reporters who have been waiting years for a personal audience of any kind with the ever-accessible Goodell.

It doesn’t take a cynic to wonder how much Goodell truly cares about the social issues. The league is rarely out in front. It waits to be embarrassed. Goodell came to his senses on concussions only after years of denial. He admitted the NFL’s domestic violence problems when it became a major scandal.

The money keeps flowing, however, which keeps the owners faithful to Goodell after eight years. Business is better than ever. The NFL sold out the Super Bowl ads at $4.5 million a shot. Tickets for tonight’s game are going for $20,000 on the secondary market. A record 111 million people watched last year’s game on TV.

In downtown Phoenix, where you can see towering images of Pepsi cans and the NFL shield on the sides of buildings, a beer can cost $11. Souvenirs are predictably overpriced. There are enough security guards on the streets to take down ISIS.

Ratings are high and business is thriving. The NFL is now a $10 billion business. Goodell has told the owners he wants it to reach $25 billion. That tells you all you need to know about the league’s real objectives, and our ally from Jamestown insists that we build a state-of-the-art stadium in Buffalo.

A $10 billion enterprise, and to think they still can’t find it in their hearts to pay their cheerleaders a decent wage.

Goodell’s critics say it doesn’t take some genius to make money for the biggest sports league in U.S. history. Eric Winston, president of the NFLPA, said “You could be the worst bartender at spring break, but you’d still be killing it.”

It was somehow fitting that Winston used alcohol to make a point. This is a league, after all, that profits mightily from pushing beer on fans, but still punishes players for using marijuana, which is now legal in some NFL cities.

At times, you feel as if the NFL were operating in a parallel universe, where only revenues matter. Goodell talks about player safety, but defends Thursday night games that force players to go back on the field with three days’ rest.

Goodell will point to NFL stats that say injuries are no more common on Thursdays. This week, the league released a report that said reported concussions are down 25 percent this year. Amazing, just one year after “League of Denial,” that the NFL has magically made a huge dent in the problem.

It’s inconvenient to point out that it’s “reported” concussions. Players have more incentive to hide concussions now, because being taken off the field can have a negative impact on their livelihood. In a recent playoff game, two Steelers took vicious hits to the head, but went right back on the field.

The league gives the viewing public what it wants, a fast, violent entertainment that sells. Maybe it’ll keep growing indefinitely. But there are troubling signs, like women who fear for their sons’ safety and an overall under-50 audience that has reportedly declined by 10 percent over the last three years.

In his withering GQ piece, Gabriel Sherman said the NFL could be facing “nothing less than an existential threat to the sport itself.” Last March, Mark Cuban said the league has gotten “hoggy,” like an overstuffed pig. Cuban said the No. 1 rule of business is that “always, always, always” turns on you eventually.

Sherman (Gabriel, not Richard) said the NFL empire might be at its peak and heading for decline. For now, pass the dip and enjoy the game. And of course, the precious commercials.


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