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NFL Commissioner's Role In Sport A Powerful One


And the Super Bowl, as Howard mentioned, is going to cap another enormously successful NFL season, in terms of TV ratings and profits. But the league also faces some fundamental questions about player safety. President Obama and dozens of players are questioning whether their sons should be encouraged to play football. Against this backdrop, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell met the media yesterday for what's known as his annual State of the League press conference. NPR's Mike Pesca attended that press conference, and has this report.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Roger Goodell is the captain of an industry that's enormously popular, financially robust and culturally ascendant. The NFL's yearly revenues are approaching $10 billion, and the take-home pay for its CEO is an annual $10 million, which will rise to $20 million in five years. But despite his overseeing what seems an impregnable match of product and customer base, Goodell cannot be cocksure. There looms the specter of a massive lawsuit filed by nearly 4,000 plaintiffs, who claim damages resulting from the blows the game inevitably delivers. The first question Goodell fielded asked of his opinion of President Obama's comment, quote, "If I had a son, I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football." Goodell said he welcomed the president's comments, and cited the benefits of the game.


PESCA: Goodell went on to promise increased discipline for dangerous play, and he encouraged tackling techniques that rely more on the shoulders and arms.

: The number one issue is, take the head out of the game.

PESCA: Goodell added that independent neurologists would be on the sidelines of NFL games next season. He was also pressed on his adjudication of the so-called New Orleans Saints bounty scandal, where the league sanctioned several Saints players and coaches for doling out cash rewards for on-field hits. After appeals, Goodell's findings were upheld , but all suspensions lifted; an ambiguous resolution except to Goodell, who emphasized:

: There is no question that there was a bounty program in place for three years. And I don't believe bounties are going to be part of football, going forward.

PESCA: Earlier in the week, Saints quarterback Drew Brees was promoting a Visa financial literacy program in the same hall that hosted the commissioner's press conference. When asked what changes should be made in the NFL's system of justice - namely, a process led by Goodell; with punishments imposed by Goodell, and appeals heard by Goodell - here's what Brees said:

DREW BREES: Anytime one person is judge, jury, executioner, it really doesn't give you a feeling that you're getting a completely fair and transparent process. You know, that's been our argument with the bounty allegations this entire time - is that it was not a fair process; it was not due process; it was certainly not transparent. And the evidence that was claimed to be had, they did not have.

PESCA: Goodell was asked if he had any regrets concerning his role in the Saints bounty case. His answer:

: We aren't all recognizing that this is a collective responsibility, to make the game safer. That's what I regret - is that I wasn't able to make that point clearly enough with the union, and with others.

PESCA: That answer isn't likely to placate Saints fans still simmering over the decision. To those fans, the commissioner is a villain. To other fans, he can be a savior. He assured a St. Louis reporter that he'd work to keep the Rams from leaving town. He told an English reporter who asked about a team based in the U.K. that the two NFL games in London have already sold out, marking Britain as, quote, "a market where we need to be more active."

The words "lawsuit" did not come up, nor was the word "brain" said; indicating that while concussions are a topic impossible to ignore, perhaps a full reckoning of their consequences is not a subject upon which the commissioner wants to dwell.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.