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As NFL Issues Become More Polarizing, Roger Goodell Must Find a Way to Better Engage

At his yearly Super Bowl press conference, the NFL’s commissioner took the stage and said a whole lot of nothing in the face of real, concerning issues plaguing the league right now.

ATLANTA — Despite coming from a political family, it may be news to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell that the age of the disconnected, legalese-speaking android standing at a podium is coming to an end.

It no longer projects stability or power to simply babble on with canned indifference to a growing pile of issues that people genuinely care about, with no clear action plan unless the league is guaranteed to see a marked difference in the accounting department. Professionalism, in the age of full visibility, does not include a miles-away stance from the one tiny window a curious public has into your world.

Just days before Super Bowl LIII, Goodell stepped in front of a crowded ballroom in desperate need of a performance laced with some humility and candor. The issues on the docket? A glaring officiating mistake that gashed a passionate fan base and contributed significantly to the Saints’ absence from Super Bowl LIII; a player, Colin Kaepernick, who has not played a snap of competitive football since 2016—coincidentally the same year he began protesting social injustice and racial equality in America (during a Super Bowl that will take place about 11 minutes from the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta); and a vanishing segment of the coaching population running parallel to some owners gleefully stiff-arming the Rooney Rule, while others treat it as the same familiar speed bump en route to their eventual decision.

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How would we have felt if he actually confronted some of this with an ounce of the passion felt by the affected parties (obviously, some far more seriously than others). While it’s clear Goodell dug his heels in years ago with the American public, making it almost impossible to “win” a press conference, wouldn’t even the slimmest departure from normal win him some praise?

Imagine a scenario where he walked to the podium and, before a four-minute, glad-handing filibuster, said hey, Benjamin Watson, you were right. I owed everyone an apology. I owed New Orleans a public apology. Yes, refereeing is difficult given the increased speed and ingenuity in our game, but this wasn’t the kind of call you’re supposed to miss. What if, when asked about Kaepernick, he said: I honestly thought he’d be signed by now, and I initially left it up to the clubs because I didn’t want to meddle and figured no one would pass on a dynamic player, but I’m going to spend this offseason talking to coaches and general managers and find out why they did. What if, when asked about the Rooney Rule, he said: Teams are missing out! That’s how the Steelers found Mike Tomlin. There’s a spirit of the rule that many experts feel isn’t being followed, and I think teams are shortchanging themselves.

He wouldn’t even have to take sides. Merely acknowledging that sides exist would be a start.

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Instead, here’s what we were left with.

On the Saints no-call:

“As I said to you, we addressed this immediately after the game. We spoke to the coach, the coach announced the conversation and the fact that the play should have been called. We had several conversations with those clubs and their officials over the coming days. That’s our policy, that’s what we always do. And so it was handled no differently, other than to make sure we listened and communicated that to the officials.”

On Kaepernick:

“I’ve said it many times, privately, publically, our clubs are the ones who make the decisions on the players that they have on their roster. They make that decision individually, they make that in the best interest of their team. And that’s something we in the NFL take pride in. Individual teams making decisions that maybe another club wouldn’t. They all want to win and they’re willing to do whatever they can to win. From our standpoint, that’s our focus.”

On the Rooney Rule:

“Well first, we don’t look at the success or failure of the Rooney Rule in one-year increments. We’ve had the Rooney Rule around for more than 20 years. It’s had an extraordinary impact on the NFL. Over 20 clubs have hired minority coaches in that period of time. And it’s also been a signal for other industries around the world to adopt a Rooney Rule to change their organizations and I think it has. It’s created opportunity … and that’s at the core of what we’re looking for.”

Translation: As I’ve said many times, we’re either A. Doing this right, B. There’s nothing I can do about it, or C. We’ll look into it, just as we’ve been looking into it.

The sad part is, the league announced an initiative to help bolster a networking pipeline, a quarterback summit with James Larnell “Shack” Harris this offseason that could go a long way toward improving the current scenario. Sell it! Be passionate. Throw yourself into something, because—as history often shows—empathy, self-awareness and understanding tends to win these tug-of-wars in the long run.

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