Every year, two days before the Super Bowl, Paul Tagliabue, like Pete Rozelle before him, stands before the news media in a session televised live and delivers a state-of-the-game address. It's a chance for the NFL commissioner, by and large, to pat the league on the back for what is almost always great prosperity, increased attendance, cutting-edge marketing, balanced and compelling competition, all culminating in the staging of the crown jewel of sporting events in the United States. And it's also a chance for cynics and skeptics, those of us with notepads and microphones, to ask probing questions about, among other issues, steroids, relocation, discriminatory hiring, rethinking overtime and poor officiating.
This year's burning issues were the lack (still) of black coaches, San Diego's prospect of getting another Super Bowl, worker's compensation conflicts involving the Washington Redskins, and whether Tagliabue can stomach even the possibility of handing the Vince Lombardi Trophy to league antagonist Al Davis. And after an hour of listening to Tagliabue answer questions Friday, mostly in the fashion that befits a lawyer, it once again became very apparent, to me anyway, that the NFL and its Super Bowl are in pretty good shape.
They're certainly in better shape than the NHL, which has two teams (Buffalo and Ottawa) that have filed for bankruptcy, yet acts as if there's nothing seriously wrong. Tagliabue never seems harassed and beat down like his baseball counterpart, Bud Selig. Football doesn't have the global appeal of pro basketball, but the NBA would kill for the NFL's attendance and TV ratings and mainstream cultural importance. Even when the NFL does blow it, as happened three weeks ago when the refs missed that call in the 49ers-Giants playoff game, the league then blows the whistle on itself. Tagliabue not only apologized, but pointed out an error that the general public didn't even know.
I'm not about to suggest the NFL is perfect, or somehow in line for a pass from criticism. Tagliabue's serious efforts aside, the league's record on minority hiring in the front office and in regard to head coaches is heinous. And as a result, the NFL is underemploying some of its most valuable human resources, which not only may be proven discriminatory in a court of law if Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri have anything to say about it, but also takes a toll on any industry in a hyper-competitive marketplace. The health of 350-pound linemen after their playing days, the serious injuries suffered before the age of 40 by men such as Wilber Marshall, the gratuitous violence in NFL-related video games marketed to pre-teens all have to be considered serious issues.
But overall it's difficult to imagine the NFL being much healthier now, especially relative to its competitors. It's the only league that doesn't need contraction. The NHL needs more than 20 teams, a 24-team NBA would be much more able to hold our interest through the regular season, and just because major league baseball won't contract doesn't mean it shouldn't. Even in economically uncertain times, the Super Bowl thrives.
Okay, so only 86 percent of the hotel rooms here are filled, instead of 91 percent during the fat years of the 1990s. Tickets, and they have a face value of $400 and $500, are sold out and are being resold by scalpers for $2,000. The competition for Super Bowls is so competitive (Houston, Jacksonville and Detroit are on deck) that San Diego simply won't get another one until the Chargers and/or the city of San Diego build a new stadium, according to Tagliabue on Friday.
Even though McDonald's and Coca-Cola have taken a seat on the commercial bench, Super Bowl ads, which 15 years ago cost $70,000 a minute according to an ESPN executive, now cost nearly $70,000 a second. Coca-Cola leaves, Pepsi comes aboard. The four biggest holiday celebrations in the United States are Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day and the Super Bowl.
It's not that popularity or the stature of cultural deity justifies exclusionary hiring or unfair labor practices because it doesn't. But everything's relative. The NFL's lack of diversity in the front office isn't nearly as offensive as a prime-time network TV schedule that's increasingly less diverse, one that excludes brown and black and Asian faces every time a network introduces a "Bachelor" or "Bachelorette" show that only serves to whiten the landscape.
The reality is that the NFL is no more flawed that the constituency it serves, and much to its credit, is willing to put its chief executive before the public at least once a year to address the state of its product 48 hours before the party begins.
Join Michael Wilbon online at noon on Monday at washingtonpost.com/liveonline for a live discussion.