Roger Goodell’s annual State Of My 32 Bosses address, which has developed into a well-rehearsed and unconvincing recitation of half-believable claims delivered with equal parts weary charm and off-putting unctuousness, was held today, as it always is this time of Superb Owl Week.
It did not disappoint, in that it totally disappointed.
But that’s our fault –- well, those who think that this speech is any more a guidepost to the state of the National Football League than a box of trading cards. It stopped being that about two years into the Goodell Era, and it has leveled off into a stolid 45 minutes or so of “well, there’s three-quarters of an hour I can’t get back again.”
But this time, it was different. It went 46 minutes.
The problem, as it has become, is that people know more about the way NFL actually does business than Goodell is comfortable saying, so when he tries to explain the league’s thinking on a particular subject, he sighs, does party line and then moves, sometimes hopefully, sometimes dismissively, on to the next subject, hoping it will be something trivial like the location of the 2019 Super Bowl or the possibility that a team could relocate to the Grand Ducky of Luxembourg so its owner can be known as The Duke.
More serious topics, like concussions, domestic violence, employee discipline, stadium construction, the viability of franchises, the roles cities play in that viability and the simple amalgamation of the kind of money that would make even Qatar sit up and take notice –- those get stolid platitudes wrapped around the odd news nugget because this isn’t the place for announcing solutions any more, just “efforts.”
In Friday’s 24-question sessionette, he was vaguely non-committal (as opposed to specifically non-committal) about San Diego and Oakland and their futures as part of the league diaspora, as expected. He talked about “the great changes” in player safety, and said “we’re not going to wait for science” because of course what does science know about brains? He talked about a preference to use a two-personal-foul ejection program. He tapdanced with moderate deftness around the last few embers of DeflateGate, the beginning of the Peyton Manning HGH story, said the league doesn’t distinguish between marijuana vs. medical marijuana, folded the Johnny Manziel trainwreck into a commercial for the league’s personal conduct policy, and expressed “disappointment” in the Pro Bowl and described it as “my number one priority.”
[RATTO: Grey Cup: CFL Commissioner Orridge vs NFL Commissioner Goodell]
The problem here, though, isn’t entirely Goodell, although he long ago stopped caring about any audiences beyond game ratings and the opinions of a select group of the 32. As a public face designed for persuasion with a happy face, he is no longer truly useful, nor is any commissioner. Gary Bettman is routinely booed even when he is presenting the Stanley Cup to your favorite team. Rob Manfred and Adam Silver have not yet presided over an owner-driven lockout yet, but they replaced men who stayed in the job long enough to be fully Bettman-ized, so they know what awaits them. They all work exclusively for their 30 as Goodell works for his 32, and we all know this.
We live in a cynical age, burnished by the number of outright lies we have been presented by official-sounding officials over the decades, and sincere-sounding answers delivered by a company man are now considered the oxiest of morons.
When Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada of ESPN discovered that the NFL is funding a great deal of brain research to learn more about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), more people jumped to the conclusion not that it is trying to help solve a problem that threatens the game itself but that it is trying to game the results ahead of the game, as it did the Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and DeflateGate investigations. They are right to be so skeptical, because the NFL long ago frittered away its credibility on the altar of Robert Klein’s law of supply and demand – “We have all the supply, so we can demand whatever the f--- we want.” They lead with their wallets, and don’t mind you knowing it.
That is where Goodell comes short, making the gravel-and-motor-oil porridge seem like crème brulee, and perhaps because his 32 bosses aren’t concerned about that part of the business any more, he has figured he needn’t be, either.
When the owners met in Houston three weeks ago to repopulate Los Angeles, they had no issue with (a) setting up one of their own, San Diego’s Dean Spanos, for an embarrassing fall, and (b) hiding the fact that they did in one of their partners so cavalierly. Not that Spanos is any angel here, but he had an expectation that his supporters would keep their pledges to him, and found out one secret ballot later that their words were the consistency of the second-hand toilet paper that North Korea has been allegedly bombarded South Korea with this week.
That the league takes no issue with us knowing that the owners screw each other when circumstances are right tells you everything you need to know about its desire to look good for the audience -– “We have all the supply, etc.”
Goodell’s true skills are found less in persuasion and more in labor and media negotiations, where he can imperiously apply Klein’s Law with game packages, streaming rights and all the other ways technology has to mainline football into your veins and brains. That is a more ruthless business, and though his friends say with great sincerity that he is actually a good guy away from the job (and he may well be, as anything is possible in this world gone mad), he is well suited to that role.
Does that make him worth $44 million a year? Apparently. Does that make neurosurgeons or former players or Oakland Raiders or St. Louis Rams fans feel any better about their place in the world? No. But if you wanted that, this was not the place or the day to seek it, and Roger Goodell is no longer the vessel to provide it.