Saturday February 6th, 2016

SAN FRANCISCO — When Roger Goodell was asked about his cheerleaders at his annual State of the NFL press conference Friday, I thought he would point to the owners in the room. As it turns out, the question was actually about the barely dressed women on the sidelines, who cheer for his teams, provide eye candy for his TV networks and apparently get paid whatever is stuck at the bottom of a vending machine.

“These are employees of each club,” Goodell said. “We encourage policies that properly compensate employees and provide the correct benefits.”

And that, right there, provides a little window into the NFL penthouse. Goodell knows NFL owners could “properly compensate” its cheerleaders without missing a mortgage payment on their fifth homes. He could do more than “encourage” them. But Goodell knows how to pick his battles. He knows who fills out his report card. And he won’t use any political capital fighting the people who pay him.

A year ago, Goodell’s pre-Super Bowl press conference was contentious. He was under siege, at least publicly, after botching the Ray Rice case, and he had already started to botch Deflategate. If you had taken prop bets on whether Goodell would still be commissioner in February 2016, a lot of people would have bet no.

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And yet, here he was: Triumphant, in a way, even if public opinion has not changed. Goodell is secure in his job, and he keeps showing why. Behind most of what he said Friday was a common theme: grow the pie.

The NFL is a money-printing machine, and for all his missteps, Goodell never loses track of what matters to the owners. To understand why he will probably keep his job for a long time, just contrast his performance Friday with the NFL Players’ Association press conference Thursday.

NFLPA leader DeMaurice Smith was asked if the players get a share of the Rams’ relocation fee. Smith clearly had no idea. He hadn’t thought about it.

That fee, by the way, is $550 million.

Do you think Goodell, on his worst day, would ever be unaware of what happens to that kind of money? No chance.

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So while the rest of us demand answers on concussions and discipline and the future of football, Goodell deflects the questions and protects those revenue streams.

He said the “concussion issue is something we have been focused on for several decades,” which would be laughable if it weren’t so outrageous. But that continues the sales pitch that the NFL has always been responsible. He fielded a question from a young girl who did not appear to be a Washington Post investigative reporter, which conveniently gave him a platform to talk about how wonderful sports are.

He was asked about marijuana use, and his answers have not really changed since he was asked about it two years ago before the New York/New Jersey Super Bowl. He said: “Our medical professionals look at that … We always review our drug policy. That is something our medical professionals do on a regular basis.”

But there is no chance of the league reevaluating its pot policy, even as the nation changes its views. And the reason is pretty simple: loosening that marijuana policy does nothing for NFL owners.

Who wants to give up a bargaining chip in negotiations? Who wants to risk alienating the portion of America’s fan base that thinks using marijuana is a character flaw?

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Sometimes, the Goodell answer overlaps with what most of us want to hear, like when he talked about the Pro Bowl: “We may have to think about that differently than we have in the past. If it’s not quality, if it’s not real competition that we can be proud of, then we may have to do something different. It’s not the kind of game we want to continue to have in its current format.”

Over and over, he hit one theme: getting better. He said he admires Panthers coach Ron Rivera because Rivera is “always looking to improve.” He announced a game in Mexico between the Raiders and Texans, and he hopes it increases interest in football in Mexico.

The NFL keeps winning. Americans follow football more closely than ever. League revenue is at all-time highs and increasing, and the owners are pocketing a big chunk of it. Roger Goodell keeps winning on the only scoreboard that matters to the league.

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