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Goodell can't make game better with cooperation

The SportsXchange

NEW ORLEANS -- At his annual "State of the League" address Friday, commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged that the NFL has some problems. And he addressed most all of them in the 50-minute give-and-take session.

Goodell allowed that all is not well with the preeminent sports entity of this or any other time, the best he could contend was the promise that solutions will be forthcoming. Speaking about the game in general, after queries about safety and concussions and bounties and the lack of HGH testing (among others), the commissioner offered that "there has to be a commitment to finding a better way."

Baltimore Ravens strong safety Bernard Pollard, who stared hard into his crystal ball the other day and suggested that NFL football might not even exist in 30 years, might be disappointed to learn the league isn't going anywhere.

OK, it's actually going to London a couple times during the 2013 season -- and the wisdom of such a move is certainly open to debate -- but the odds are good that your grandchildren or even your grandchildren will still be enjoying NFL football long after you're pushing up posies.

At least as long as commissioner Roger Goodell, who figures to be retired by the time folks start paying Mayan calendar-level attention to Pollard's prognostication, is concerned.

"Our biggest risk," Goodell noted, adding that innovation is at the NFL's core, not just a passing theme, "is being complacent."

He's right. But the lack of complacency also equates in the NFL to a dearth of cooperation. And that rash Goodell feels most every day, and for which he has no proven salve, is coming from the NFLPA and the players who follow the lead of flawed executive director DeMaurice Smith.

Goodell is a good and well-intentioned man. But he needs a dance partner to get some things, like HGH testing, enacted. And in Smith and his fellow mouthpieces, Goodell's partners are out of step.

The NFLPA is about as contrarian as the United States House of Representatives, almost as obstructionist in some ways. And that's a resistance that Goodell, no matter how well-intentioned his efforts or initiatives, could find hard in coming years to work around.

Goodell is no Pollyanna. Even if he posited Friday morning that he was unaware of some of the things said at Thursday's conference by the NFLPA -- at which the union made no mention of the HGH matter and Smith answered one question by noting that the day represented the birthday of Jackie Robinson -- rest assured, he knew full well the saber-rattling that transpired there. So he knows that, while the CBA purported to create labor peace, the alleged absence of strife isn't worth the paper on which it's written.

There may be no less popular commissioner than Goodell with the players -- even if most guys won't register their grievances to his face -- but he reiterated several times in Friday that he takes responsibility for his actions. In fact, he repeated that theme in discussing health and safety issues, concussions, sanctions against players, the New Orleans "bountygate" scandal.

But cooperation, not one man's acceptance of culpability, is the key to growing the game. And right now, the game is stunted a bit.

Goodell didn't make a whole lot of news. There were, besides his belief that the NFL will have HGH testing before the start of the '13 season, not many headlines. He also said after he left the podium, in an interview with NFL Network, that playoff expansion would be studied.

But he said he and the NFL "will not relent" on its emphasis on player safety. Goodell said that the so-called "Rooney Rule," which mandates that clubs interview minorities for head coach and general manager vacancies, needs updating.

"We want to make sure that we get the best people in the best possible positions," he said.

He said that the powerful competition committee will this spring revisit the legality of some "low blocks." Goodell claimed that the league's team doctors, despite arguments from the union about some of them (specifically the doctor in San Diego), are dedicated and diligent as well.

Concerning the Saints' bounties, which have made Goodell so unpopular here with many fans -- the Commish said he "could not feel more welcome" in New Orleans -- he reiterated that the fact-finding supported his notion that there was a three-year program consisted with the allegations.

He said that the finding of his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, basically upheld his own.

Make no mistake, the words, as they typically are with the engaging Goodell, were right on the nose. So was the delineation of the menu of league problems. There are, to be sure, blemishes.

Yeah, even in a $9 billion league, there are concerns. But the words can serve as a balm and the ultimate panacea concoction should really be a combination.

That's where things get sticky.

Ironically, one of the first questions to Goodell was regarding President Obama's recent contention that, if he had a son, he would have to think twice about allowing him to strap on a helmet and play football, because of the safety issues. The query was ironic because, just as Obama has John Boehner and the House contradicting him at every turn, Goodell has Smith and the union in the way of real progress. It is a tough road when the sky is blue and the other guys always see it as, say, green.

"Innovation," the commissioner said, "is a philosophy."

But it's more than anything a very real collaboration. Said Goodell, who urged responsibility and accountability from all involved: "What we need to do is focus on, 'How do we make the game better?'"

Unfortunately, a lack of focus from the other side is standing in the way of progress. And it's that reality, even more than the perceived mistrust said to permeate among the rank-and-file, that Goodell has to figure out a way to remove as a roadblock.

Yeah, the NFL will exist in 30 years, but it might require some fence-mending.
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