PHOENIX - Domestic violence. Questionable discipline. Player safety. Confusing officiating. Deflated footballs.
The disturbing headlines that began last February never slowed down for the NFL this season. The problems — most of them made worse by the ineffectual handling — mushroomed into an imperfect storm that hurt the league's credibility and turned the lead-up to Sunday's Super Bowl into a time for damage control, not celebration.
"It never ceases," said Orin Starn, a Duke professor who studies sports in society. "It was one crisis and PR challenge after another and I didn't envy Roger Goodell at all."
At the commissioner's contentious news conference Friday — Goodell fielded one question about whether he thought he should be fired and another about taking a pay cut — he was hit with a barrage of questions that spoke to the wide range of problems that punctured the league's integrity, though not its popularity.
"On the one hand, you've got a league that's never been more profitable, never been more popular," agent Leigh Steinberg said. "On the other hand, there was less-than-deft handling and anticipation of some major issues that have hit the third rail. They've transcended the hardcore football fans to become household issues."
It's a tribute to America's obsession with football that what feels like a trivial tale about flatter-than-normal footballs hasn't abated as the week's top story, even with a looming matchup between New England and Seattle. The Patriots were accused of providing under-inflated footballs for their AFC championship win, and an investigation will be concluded after the title game. That was the lead story on all three major-network news broadcasts one evening.
Another story that won't end: Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch's refusal to play nice with the media and the NFL's uncertainty about how, or whether, to enforce rules that compel players to do interviews.
"I did 35 radio interviews this week," Steinberg said. "That's all anyone wanted to talk about."
But it's issues such as Deflategate, the confusing rules and the competence of the NFL's officials that could damage the league most.
There's a general assumption, Steinberg said, "that the contests are performed with equal rules, equal officiating and the games turn on coaching and players who play on the field.
"Any suggestion that something else is happening, that there may be cheating or unfair enforcement, is an existential threat to the NFL," he said.
The domestic violence crisis that exploded when Ray Rice — the former Baltimore Ravens running back — punched his fiancee and Adrian Peterson — the Minnesota Vikings star — whipped his son with a tree branch has been treated mostly in general terms this week.
Goodell used the words "domestic violence" only once during his nearly 50-minute news conference, instead referring to it more than once as part of a set of "complex issues."
Domestic violence accusations against players garnered as much attention for the NFL's handling of them — most notably, Rice's two-game suspension that was made indefinite when video of the punch surfaced, then overturned by an arbitrator — as the charges themselves.
That doesn't thrill people on the front lines in fighting domestic abuse, though they do give the NFL credit for pumping money into increasing awareness. The NFL is footing the bill for a 30-second public-service announcement during the Super Bowl (half-minute spots are selling for around $4.5 million) about domestic violence that will reach tens of millions.
"I'd call it the first step of the NFL taking this conversation to the next level," said Ruth Glenn, the executive director for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Neither the domestic violence crisis, nor the ongoing murder trial of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, nor any other off-field issue deterred fans or sponsors — who foot much of the bill for a $9 billion business that Goodell hopes to grow by more than double over the next decade. NFL games accounted for 45 of the 50 most-watched shows from Labour Day to the end of 2014. The Super Bowl, as always, is a near lock to be among the most-watched programs of all time.
It's not guaranteed to last forever, said George Daly, a Georgetown professor of management who consulted the NFL decades ago.
"All these things are risky," Daly said. "If you look back to, say, 1950, the NFL title game brought in less money than the Rose Bowl. Things can change."
The health and safety of the league's players poses another long-term threat. While the NFL used the week to tout a 25-per cent decrease in concussions recorded this season, another study spelling out the dangers football presents to children made headlines, as well. So did an Associated Press report detailing flaws in about three-fifths of state youth concussion laws passed in all 50 states since 2009 at the urging of the league.
News about overuse of painkillers, the league's implementation of a human growth hormone testing program that isn't as effective as it could be and the efficacy of the league's penalties for marijuana also made headlines.
All this comes against the backdrop of lawsuits. Most notably, the NFL is waiting for final resolution of a lawsuit by former players who accused the league of hiding what it knew about brain injuries so they would stay on the field. The proposed settlement is worth an estimated $1 billion.
It's money the league can afford.
But this season exposed some unseemly chinks in the NFL's armour —forcing leaders to rethink the way they do business. Already, they've revamped their investigative process, are considering changes among their officiating crews and announced they'll hire a new chief medical officer.
"They have to look and say, 'What are the threats and what are the opportunities?'" Daly said. "From what I see, there are real threats out there."
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