PHOENIX -- You can make a pretty strong argument that this has been the most humiliating week for the collected American sporting press in Super Bowl history.
The press conference antics of Marshawn Lynch, intentionally or otherwise, have proven a consistently devastating satire of the increasing irrelevance of the job of professional sportswriting, as it is currently constructed. (Made even more obvious when Lynch shows just how funny and charming he can be when he's around Conan O'Brien.)
Journalists foolish enough to complain about Lynch's reticence to speak have discovered, at considerable volume, that the general public not only disagrees with them but thinks they're all assholes. Any stories that aren't about the omnipresence and inevitable domination of the NFL -- anything that has chronicled the miserable year of NFL news that the nation had been so worked about but collectively dropped the minute Katy Perry showed up -- have failed to gain an inch of traction. It's raining. Nobody's boycotting Skittles. It's just a tough deal all around.
So it's little wonder that every media person I talked to all week had been looking forward to Friday with such relish. Since I got here, beleaguered media sorts have been referring to Friday's press conference from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's as "our Super Bowl." Roger Goodell could hide behind the billions of dollars of NFL revenue, behind the largest television audience in American history, behind a couple of offensive linemen if needed to, but he couldn't hide from us. All the built-up frustration and impotence of this week had to be released somewhere.
The feel of the massive conference room in the Phoenix Convention Center was of a pregame atmosphere, with reporters doing standups next to the empty dais and even having gameday-like studio panels broadcasting live leading up to the festivities. (You half expected someone to sing the national anthem right before Goodell walked to the podium, or fighter jets to fly over or something.) This was the day of reckoning. Goodell was going to have to answer for himself. Here's what he said:
Now that you've watched: Do you feel Goodell looked chastened? Do you think reporters got him? Because from my seat -- next to the infamous PFT Commenter, who has been out here causing hilarious chaos for SB Nation, including calling out Tony Dungy in his uniquely brilliant way for his hypocrisy on Michael Sam -- this was the old Goodell. Cocksure, dismissive and absolutely in control. Gone was the disastrous Sarah Palin-esque world cloud, staggered dopery of his infamous press conference in September. This was Goodell back at his mansplaining best. This is a man who is no longer worried about his job.
Heck, all you had to do was ask him. A reporter from The New York Times asked if he felt he deserved a pay cut; he smirked and said it's up to the owners, with a grin that was all the answer the question needed. When one person asked if Goodell could imagine a scenario where he would lose his job, Goodell said simply, "No, I can't. Does that answer surprise you?" (It didn't.) Watching at home, you might have found his snippy response to CNN's Rachel Nichols' asking him about the conflict of interest inherent in the league paying outside investigators on in-house matters -- "someone has to pay them. Do you want to, Rachel? I didn't think so." -- obnoxious, sneering and dickish, and you would be correct. But that wasn't the vibe in the room. The room, filled with 500 people (about one-third reporters and two-thirds various NFL employees, most of whom have the same determined-jaw blankness as their boss), chortled heartily at Goodell's zinger in Nichols' direction. And you could almost hear the 32 NFL owners high fiving.
All that "yeah, let's go get 'em!" vibe I'd been hearing all week from reporters? That went poof awfully quick. Those three questions above were the only real openly hostile ones Goodell got, unless you count the NFL Play 60 Superkid Bobby Sena, who was quite adorable but probably shouldn't have been given a few minutes at Goodell's one open media availability a year. (It's actually pretty hilarious that the media plant set up Goodell so that he could specifically inform us that he had been to the gym at 4:45 that morning.)
The interrogations were otherwise pretty soft, with half of them, still, amazingly, about those damned deflated footballs. Goodell grew more confident and comfortable as the press conference went on -- essentially kicking into gear after dressing down Nichols, now that I think about it -- and by the end it all basically dissolved into him saying "integrity" over and over and over.
Roger Goodell is less a human being at these things -- there is none of the casual, if certainly practiced, rapport of a David Stern or even an Adam Silver -- than a totem for corporate prattle, and, unlike the September press conference, he harnessed that ability in his favor this time. Goodell carries himself as if he is a sitting president, but if this year has proven anything, it's that his job isn't really that hard. (If it were, he would have been fired, maybe multiple times.) As long as the NFL is printing money, and as long as more people are watching it than they've ever watching anything else in American history, as long Roger Goodell can stand there and turn empty questions into empty answers and the money train keeps a-groovin' … he's going to remain the commissioner of football.
The only word Goodell used nearly as often as "integrity" in the press conference was "humility." He said the last year was one of "humility and learning." And he is half-right. Goodell has gotten so much better at handling a press conference than he was in September, particularly when we make it so easy on him. He has improved so much in saying absolute nothing and staying out of the way.
But humility? Roger Goodell doesn't have to be humble. The train is back on track. The people have spoken. He has 32 men who don't have to deal with the riff-raff at a press conference once a year; he does that for them, saying nothing other than that he likes to work out early in the morning. The smile he gave when saying that he couldn't imagine a scenario where he lost his job was priceless, and infinite. I can't imagine that scenario either.
We'll do this same charade next Super Bowl. Next time, there might well be those fighter jets. I wouldn't be surprised if kicks off with a pledge of allegiance.
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