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TARA SULLIVAN

Roger Goodell’s mouth moved, but he said his usual nothing

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell smiles during his annual Super Bowl press conference on Wednesday in Atlanta.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell smiles during his annual Super Bowl press conference on Wednesday in Atlanta.(David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

ATLANTA — Roger Goodell wasted little time portending his annual Super Bowl news conference as yet another exercise in futility Wednesday afternoon, quickly dropping a few of the patented tone-deaf proclamations that have come to characterize these yearly escapes from his self-imposed witness protection program as much as any of the bob-and-weave answers that follow his scripted introductory statements.

With opening declarations including “There has never been a better time to be part of the NFL” and “Our game is getting better and better,” it was clear from the outset there wouldn’t be any substantive answers to the myriad issues facing the billion-dollar league Goodell oversees. Rather, it was another nearly hour-long filibuster from the man who rarely engages with the public while pretending to be the people’s champion.

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The leading topic inside an oversized conference room at the Georgia World Congress Center was the controversial ending of the NFC Championship game, when a missed/blown call on a helmet-to-helmet pass interference split our football conversation in two. While the league would love only to celebrate the arrival of these young, high-flying Rams to their Super Bowl meeting with the big, bad Patriots, the flip-side anger and frustration of the Saints has deservedly earned just as much ink and air time (and even a few billboards in downtown New Orleans).

Yet as much as Goodell offered what was actually a sensible and seemingly heartfelt response, the fact that it was the first time he publicly opened his mouth on the topic was impossible to ignore. Leadership by absence is not leadership at all, and it’s what opened the door for something like Saints coach Sean Payton apparently hiding a Goodell clown T-shirt under his jacket as he conducted his own year-end news conference in New Orleans.

Shake your head all you want at Payton taking a questionable page out of Matt Patricia’s playbook of outrage, but digest just for a moment how much Goodell wears an easy bull’s-eye among his rank-and-file.

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“We understand the frustration of the fans,” Goodell said. “I’ve talked to Coach Payton, the team, the players. We understand the frustration that they feel right now and we certainly want to address that.

“Whenever officiating is part of any kind of discussion postgame, it’s never a good outcome for us. We know that, our clubs know that, our officials know that. We also know our officials are human. We know they officiate a game that moves very quickly and have to make snap decisions under difficult circumstances. And they’re not going to make it right every time.

“The game is not officiated by robots.”

Then why does it feel like it’s led by one? Because other than that flash of humanity, there was little else to prove Goodell has the pulse of his constituents or fan base.

He punted on a question regarding the personal conduct/domestic violence suspensions of Kareem Hunt and Reuben Foster, leaving it to the league’s crack investigative committee.

He couldn’t offer a solution to the nomadic Raiders and where they might play before their jilting of Oakland for Las Vegas is complete.

He went pale when tossed a curveball about halftime entertainers Maroon 5, and why the group canceled a scheduled (and traditional) news conference Thursday, stammering something about how that’s actually innovative because the band wants to use social media instead to connect directly with fans.

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Which brings us to Colin Kaepernick.

Given the lack of substance in Roger Goodell’s words during his annual Super Bowl press conference, he may as well have not been there at all.
Given the lack of substance in Roger Goodell’s words during his annual Super Bowl press conference, he may as well have not been there at all.(Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)

Of course, he’s the most obvious reason Maroon 5 didn’t want to face questions, to be forced to defend their decision to perform while other acts pulled out in protest of Kaepernick’s ongoing NFL unemployment. And while Goodell could have acknowledged something to that effect, or could have simply said it was the band’s decision, the idea that it was some broad social media strategy makes zero sense. If that were true, why would the news conference have been planned at all?

Not surprisingly, Goodell was no more enlightening on one of the longest-running controversies of his tenure, deferring any answer as to why Kaepernick has never been re-signed since his decision to kneel during the national anthem to individual clubs. (Never mind that Kaepernick is currently pursuing legal action against the league for collusion.) That Goodell would actually have us believe the only reason clubs haven’t signed the QB is football-related is just ridiculous.

“I think if a team decides that Colin Kaepernick or any other player can help them win, that’s what they’ll do,” he said.

On and on it went. More of the same, with Goodell even insisting his commentary on the blown call was more than adequate because it included the teams in question on the night of the game. No public statement, no problem.

Sigh.

In the end, I couldn’t help but think of one of my favorite books growing up, the Norton Juster classic “The Phantom Tollbooth.” The story of little Milo’s journey through the fictional lands of word-based Dictionopolis and numbers-based Digitopolis brings him and his friends to a meal with the Mathemagician, where they are served something called subtraction stew. They are starving, but the more they eat, the hungrier they get.

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They are confused, until their host explains, “Here in Digitopolis, we have our meals when we’re full and eat until we’re hungry. That way, when you don’t have anything at all, you have more than enough. It’s a very economical system. You must have been quite stuffed to have eaten so much.”

After an hour with Goodell, I know how Milo felt.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.