NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is not the most popular guy. We've been reminded, often, lately, about his help to keep the New Orleans Saints in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, how he wants the Superdome to remain a Super Bowl destination, and how we should put the past behind us and move forward and just enjoy the game, will ya. Grudge-holding Saints fans, however, will forever remember Goodell as the villain in the 2012-2013 Saints season. His unpopularity was so obvious the dude was the subject of a lecture on politeness courtesy of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who reminded the city to "be on your best behavior," knowing full well (and sympathizing with) the bitterness, and the "Go to Hell Goodell"s and "Do Not Serve This Man"s around town. Oh, and then there's the Krewe du Vieux float picturing Goodell being eaten by a giant vagina. Guy has had a rough couple weeks.
Today, Goodell made his first public Super Bowl XLVII appearance in New Orleans before a massive press crowd. No tomatoes were thrown. He had nothing but kind things to say about the city, but also to Saints fans. WWL-TV's Paul Murphy asked, "Do you feel welcome here?"
"I couldn't feel more welcome here. ... I had a float in a Mardi Gras parade. I'm serious — people here have been incredible," he said. "I understand a fan's loyalty is to the team. They had no part in this. They were completely innocent in this. I appreciate the passion. I saw it for myself when we were down here for Katrina. It's clear that's what they're all about."
Themes from Super Bowl stories coming out of New Orleans about New Orleans have mostly dealt with whether the city is still a "Katrina" story. Goodell echoed some of that, saying "It's clear this city is back bigger and better than ever" before thanking the Super Bowl Host Committee and the 7,000 local volunteers for being "truly, truly great hosts this week."
But Goodell stood his ground on the Bountygate decisions.
"There is no question there was a bounty program in place for three years," he said. "I think that's bad for the players, the game, and I think the message is incredibly clear, and I don't believe bounties are going to be part of football moving forward. That's good for everybody. So I do think that message has come through clear."
Asked whether he had any regrets about the decision and penalties, Goodell said he regrets that the league isn't "recognizing that this is a collective responsibility to get them out of the game and make the game safer. Clearly, the teams, the NFL, the coaching staffs, executives and players, we all share this responsibility, and that's what I regret, that I wasn't able to make that point clearly enough with the union and others. But that is something that we're going to be incredibly relentless on."
Goodell highlighted this season's storylines, from player comebacks to rookie successes, and the road to the Super Bowl and its storylines — Harbaugh on Harbaugh and Ray Lewis' swan song.
As a commissioner with a hardline focus on player safety, he reiterated his commitment to enforcing a "health and safety culture — that is a big priority," as well as diversity in hiring practices. "The results this year have been unacceptable," he said. (No minorities were hired for the eight coach and seven general manager positions available. The "Rooney Rule" requires teams to interview at least one minority for top team leadership positions.)
The NFL will employ neurosurgeons on gamedays for consultations and as "another set of eyes on the field." Players also will have more thorough pre- and post-season physicals. A union survey released yesterday revealed 78 percent of polled players do not trust their team medical staffs. "I'm disappointed," he said. "I think we have tremendous medical care for our players. ... We will always seek to improve it, to see how we can make things better. ... But we'll have to address that and see how we can improve it."
Goodell agrees with President Barack Obama, who said if he had a son, he'd have to reconsider whether he'd allow him to play football because of the health and safety consequences. "We will continue to make it a priority," Goodell said, adding that he started playing tackle football in 4th grade and "wouldn't give back one day playing tackle football."