Sports

DAN SHAUGHNESSY

For Robert Kraft and Roger Goodell, air still isn’t clear

PHOENIX — The Super Bowl is Sunday. But it’s Game On for Bob Kraft vs. Roger Goodell.

NFL commissioner Goodell, speaking to the media for the first time since
“Deflategate,” said during his “State of the NFL” address Friday that the AFC Championship game in Foxborough was played with some footballs that were not in compliance with the rules, and that the league is trying to determine whether “this was the result of deliberate action.’’

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Carefully, the commissioner added, “We have made no judgments on these points and we will not compromise the investigation by engaging in speculation.’’

What about the apology Kraft wants if the Patriots are exonerated?

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“This is my job,’’ answered Goodell. “This is my responsibility to protect the integrity of the game. I represent 32 teams. All of us want to make sure rules are being followed.

“And if we have any information where the potential is that those rules were violated, I have to pursue that. And I have to pursue that aggressively.

“This is my job. It is the job of the league office. It is what all 32 clubs expect and I believe our partners and fans expect, and we’ll do it vigorously. And it is important for it to be thorough and fair.’’

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Paving the way for a potential pardon of the Patriots (and much guffawing about another investigative “bag job”), Goodell explained that Deflategate is different from the Saints’ Bountygate (“ignorance is no excuse”), saying, “We don’t know enough in this investigation to know who is responsible, or whether there was even an infraction.

“We will make the right decision to protect the integrity of the league.’’

Goodell said he did not know whether footballs had been routinely tested for PSI at halftime of other games. This answer is simply not believable.

Regarding a lower burden of proof in the Ted Wells investigation into potential doctoring of footballs by the Patriots, Goodell said, “We want the truth. That’s what our fans want. That’s what our clubs wants. We want to make sure we find that truth.”

The usually ubiquitous Kraft was noticeably absent from Friday’s massive press conference.

Goodell rarely answers questions. Prior to Friday, he hadn’t answered anything since the league meetings in October. His time-tested strategy is to say nothing, watch TV ratings soar, and count cash while the national media cries for his head and colors each new crisis as “the worst moment in the history of the league.’’

When the commish does take questions, they are usually softballs from one of the NFL’s many “broadcast partners.’’ CBS’s Les Moonves isn't going to send any attack dogs to interview bobo Goodell.

Kraft has been Goodell’s virtual frat brother throughout the commissioner’s tenure.

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Friday’s grilling from the national media was tougher, but Goodell still skated. He semi-mocked a legitimate question about the non-independence of his “independent investigators,” asking CNN’s Rachel Nichols if she would be willing to pay for an independent arbiter.

It’s been a tough year for Goodell. His league exploded in a domestic violence crisis in September and there were calls for him to be fired in the wake of his handling of the Ray Rice case.

Then it got worse. Adrian Peterson was arrested for hitting his child with a switch. Players from other teams were beating up their girlfriends and/or wives and remaining on NFL rosters.

In the wake of the bad news, Goodell was mocked for his whopping salary (seven years, $300 million), bludgeoned by fans and media. He responded by hiring an obviously conflicted former FBI director who produced a laughable report that basically held that the commissioner did not do anything wrong.

Nothing to see here, people. Move along. And make sure to watch “Thursday Night Football.”

Goodell never lost his composure and never fought back. He took the hits, counted his cash, and watched as yet another NFL season produced amazing action and boffo television ratings.

Just when it seemed like everything was getting back to normal, Deflategate exploded. The league told America that the New England Patriots played the AFC Championship with footballs that were inflated below league limits. A league investigation was launched and the Patriots’ legacy was tarnished.

And then the unthinkable happened: Kraft came to the Super Bowl, said his coach and quarterback are clean, and asked for an apology from the league if the Patriots are cleared.

It was shocking to see Kraft throw down the gauntlet. The Patriots owner was described by an insider as “assistant commissioner’’ in comments to GQ. Kraft is one of the two or three most powerful owners in the league and has been Goodell’s virtual frat brother throughout the commissioner’s tenure.

Back in September, when Goodell needed a friend, it was the “Master Kraftsman” who told ever-friendly CBS, “The way he’s handled the situation, I think, was excellent.’’

Earlier in the week, when Seattle defensive back Richard Sherman was asked if the Patriots would be punished for Deflategate, Sherman said, “Not as long as Robert Kraft and Roger Goodell are still taking pictures at their respective homes. He was just at Kraft’s house last week before the AFC Championship.

“Talk about conflict of interest. As long as that happens, it won’t affect them at all.’’

Goodell made no apologies for his blatantly biased relationship with Kraft, saying, “I admire, respect, and think very highly of him on a personal level. There’s no hiding from that standpoint.

“But since he knows me so well, and he knows I am not going to do anything to compromise the integrity of the league, I think he has no doubt that I will do the right thing for the NFL.

“We are a league of rules. The 32 teams, our partners, and every fan expects us to follow those rules. And if there are rules that dictate the pressure in footballs . . . we’re going to enforce those rules.

“Whether a competitive advantage was actually gained or not is secondary in my mind to whether that rule was violated. That’s the integrity of our game, and when those rules are violated, we take that seriously.’’

The Patriots and their fans now hate the NFL. They believe the league overinflated the underinflation story. They believe they are subject of a sloppy witch hunt. The Patriots and their fans believe the NFL has tarnished this otherwise wonderful quest by the New England football team.

Super Bowl XLIX.

Kraft-Goodell I.

Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.
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