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Goodell accentuates the positive in address

The SportsXchange

By Frank Cooney and Howard Balzer

The Sports Xchange

NEW YORK -- After a National Football League season in which the major issues involved the culture of the game both on and off the field, Commissioner Roger Goodell chose not to proactively introduce detailed discussion on the profound ramifications of safety concerns on game penalties or the impact of interpersonal turmoil within the Miami Dolphins on locker rooms throughout the league.

Looking to accentuate the positive, Goodell opened his address Friday by lauding how New York and New Jersey have handled the run-up to Sunday's Super Bowl XVLIII at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., and that the game will feature the league's No. 1 offense in the Denver Broncos against the No. 1 defense in the Seattle Seahawks.

After a few short minutes of introduction, while claiming "this has been a terrific season by any standards," Goodell asked for questions from the media, reducing his role to that of a respondent in his so-called State of the League address.

The issue of safety concerns was first introduced in a question about Goodell's reaction to the decision by U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody, who refused to give preliminary approval to the $765 million settlement on concussion litigation because of her concern that "not all retired NFL football players who ultimately receive a qualifying diagnosis, or their related claimants, will be paid."

Goodell said, "What the judge did was she is taking her time. She's making sure that ... the agreement we reach is going to work the way we intend it to work. The No. 1 thing for us right now is to get the money in place so that we can help the players and their families if they need it, and that is our priority. So, we are working with Judge Brody. We're working with all of her experts to convince her that the settlement we reach can provide the kind of benefits that we intended, and we're confident that we'll get there."

However, he had to handle a direct hit from San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, reporting for MMQB.com, who asked the commissioner why the league doesn't offer players health benefits for life.

Goodell acknowledged that "we had lots of discussions about that in the collective bargaining process. We went back and improved a lot of our health benefits, both for former players and for current players, to the point where I think that the health benefits that are provided to current NFL players are the best in the world, and so I'm proud of what we've been able to do with the union in improving those benefits. We all still have a lot of work to do for former players. The cost of trying to provide healthcare for every player that has ever played in the league was discussed with the union. It was determined that these changes were the best changes, and that's what we negotiated, but we're all proud of the efforts that we made. We will continue to make more efforts and do a better job."

The concussion issue was also addressed when Goodell was asked to explain why concussions were down 13 percent this past season when there is more scrutiny of the injury.

Said Goodell, "I think it's because we made changes in the game. We made changes to the rules, we made changes to our equipment and there's been changes in the way we deal with concussions when they do occur. We try to do everything we can to prevent them, but when they do occur we manage them effectively. There's greater awareness. There is a more conservative approach over a long period of time. We have added other elements that will identify this injury."

Most important, he said, is that "the culture is changing and changing for the better. The game is safer, it's more exciting and it is more popular than ever."

As for the impact of tighter rules that restrict the target zone for legal hits, rules that have been inconsistently enforced this season, the closest discussion on that topic came when Goodell confirmed that the NFL is considering even further replay scrutiny, which may include input from the league office even during a game.

"We believe that we might be able to achieve more consistency when we bring instant replay with us -- more of a centralized version and decision-making process -- and that's something the Competition Committee is going to consider over the next two months and come back to a recommendation for the membership," Goodell said. "I do believe there's a possibility that some version of that will occur where our office can at least be involved with the decision. May not make the decision, but can at least provide some input that would be helpful to the officials on the field to make sure they're seeing every angle, to make sure they have the proper opportunity to make the best decision."

Goodell also acknowledged that locker-room decorum -- an issue that exploded early in the season when Miami's Jonathan Martin left the team while accusing teammate Richie Incognito of inappropriate behavior -- is a priority issue with the league.

In a strong sentiment, Goodell said, "Our No. 1 priority is to make sure that we have a workplace environment that's professional, recognizing that we have some unique circumstances. I've already begun discussions with outside parties. I've discussed it with the union. I've also discussed it with several groups of players, individually and collectively, to talk about the circumstances. And the No. 1 thing I hear, and the No. 1 thing that I believe, is we all need to get back to respect. It's respect for each other, respect for the game, respect for your organization, respect for your opponents and the game officials. So, we're going to focus on this in the offseason."

Of course, the weather was a frequent part of questioning, and during his opening remarks, snowflakes fell on the stage of the Rose Theatre. Asked about other cold-weather cities with open-air stadiums bidding for the game, Goodell said, "We know there's interest in other communities hosting the Super Bowl. I think the ownership will sit back and review that when we're done, but we have a very aggressive process in how we select cities. The ability to host the Super Bowl is more and more complicated, more and more complex because of the size and number of events. The infrastructure is very important. There are over 30,000 hotel rooms needed even to host the Super Bowl so there are some communities that may not be able to do it from an infrastructure standpoint, but we know the passion's there.

"I believe we need to get to as many communities as possible and give them the opportunity to share in not only the emotional benefits but also the economic benefits. It helps the NFL, it helps our fans and it helps grow our game."

Another subject of discussion in recent weeks has been the potential of adding two teams to the current 12-team postseason format.

"We are looking at the idea of expanding that by two teams to 14," Goodell said. "There's a lot of benefits to doing that. We think we can make the league more competitive. We think we can make the matchups more competitive towards the end of the season. There will be more excitement, more memorable moments for our fans. That's something that attracts us. We think we can do it properly from a competitive standpoint. This will continue to get very serious consideration by the Competition Committee and then the ownership will have to vote on it."

Goodell also addressed the controversy over the Redskins' nickname, saying, "I've been spending the last year talking to many of the leaders in the Native-American communities. We are listening. We are trying to make sure we understand the issues. Let me remind you, this is the name of a football team, a football team that has had that name for 80 years, and has presented the name in a way that has honored Native Americans. We recognize that there are some who don't agree with the name and we have listened and respected them.

"But if you look at the numbers, including in Native-American communities, in a Native-American community poll, nine out of 10 supported the name. Eight out of 10 Americans in the general population would not like us to change the name. So, we are listening. We are being respectful of people who disagree, but let's not forget this is the name of a football team."

Finally, with the legalization of marijuana occurring in Colorado and Washington, along with some players speaking out in favor of the use of medicinal marijuana, Goodell was asked about going so far as to stop testing NFL players for marijuana.

He said, "It is still an illegal substance on a national basis. It's something that is part of our collective bargaining agreement with our players. It is questionable with respect to the positive impact, but there is certainly some very strong evidence to the negative impacts, including addiction and other issues. So, we'll continue to follow the medicine. Our experts right now are not indicating that we should change our policy in any way. We are not actively considering that at this point in time. But down the road sometime that is something we would never take off the table if it could benefit our players at the end of the day."
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