NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s yearly Super Bowl state of the union is famous for its ratio of actual words spoken to the number of those words that carry an ounce of meaning or significance. Like any politician or CEO, the front man for league ownership has perfected a kind of finesse that allows him to address the day’s pressing issues in such practiced legalese that the asker of a question doesn’t realize they were shooed away until listening back to the tape recorder minutes later.
It was true Thursday of his response to the league’s minority coaching crisis, which elicited little more than a We’re working on it, Jeez! It was true of the response to a Colin Kaepernick question, which was, essentially, You know Colin actually wasn’t the first person to raise these issues so that somehow cleanses us of all wrongdoing. But it was actually, provably true when Goodell was asked a laundry list of questions about the 2021 NFL season, which, as we all know, begins to feverishly kick into gear the moment confetti is swept off the field at the end of the 2020 Super Bowl.
Maybe the realist in all of us already knew what he was going to say, but that didn’t take any weight off the actual response. This time he was speaking from the part of his brain that doesn’t rely on a script. None of us really know if football is going to be different in 2021. Less skittish. Less uncertain. Less ethically and morally twisting. Less unsafe. And, in turn, no one knows whether regular, everyday life will be much different either.
Because sports—most notably the NBA—were a signal to all Americans that the country was shutting down last March and that we should take this new strain of virus seriously, they will almost certainly be part of its grand reopening. There will be 25,000 fans on hand at Raymond James Stadium for the Super Bowl, though it will feel more like an elaborate stage setting than anything else (and an indictment of Florida’s general wonton disregard for common sense). Nothing, save for the full-throated cacophony of a stadium like Arrowhead or Lumen Field at full capacity, will be able to symbolize the league (and, maybe, for some, America!) being truly free of a pandemic.
“I don't know when normal will occur again and I don't know if normal ever will again,” Goodell said. “I know this, we've learned to operate in a difficult environment. We have found solutions and we'll do it again."
The NFL would like to play games in England and elsewhere abroad next year, as Goodell was asked, but who knows if it will? The NFL would like to pack stadiums, and perhaps it could with proof that everyone rubbing shoulder to shoulder, closely breathing the same air, has been vaccinated. Does the science bear that out as a reasonable solution? Will we all be able to get the vaccine? Will international travel be advisable?
“Virtual is going to be part of our life,” Goodell said, when asked about taking the lessons of 2020 and applying them to the near future of the league. “For the long term. We learned, the coaches learned, the players learned.”
Before he took questions on Thursday, Goodell was asked by the event’s host, NFL Network reporter Steve Wyche, about the Center for Disease Control’s advice about limiting the audience for Super Bowl gatherings at home. Dr. Anthony Fauci has made the rounds, warning us, much like he did before holiday gatherings late in the winter, not to mingle in unfamiliar crowds. To stick mostly by the people we’ve been quarantining with for the majority of the calendar year. Weeks into the pandemic last year, it would have been unfathomable to the lot of us that we’d still be at a distance; that the Super Bowl would serve as another reminder of how altered our lives have become.
But maybe a bit of honesty from Goodell was a good thing. Virtual will be a part of our lives and that’s O.K. The NFL we knew is coming back. The life we knew is coming back. We just don’t know when.