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Another super season in the books, NFL still has work to do

By Bill Dwyre, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — There are 366 days from this year’s Super Bowl to the next, and there is a lot of work to do. Thank heavens it’s leap year.

Sunday’s usual over-the-top extravaganza proved further that this is the most successful professional sport in the country’s history. Nor does there appear to be anything to hinder future growth and continued greatness in the NFL, unless the feds catch a star player shaving points.

Sunday’s dramatic game, built around two class-act quarterbacks in Tom Brady and Eli Manning, was off the charts in fan satisfaction, product marketing and tonnage of chip dip consumed. The only thing making it more American would have been Don McLean writing a song about it.

Work is left? Should we not leave good enough alone?

Two off-field occurrences — interesting, revealing and potentially connected — provide fodder.

First was Roger Goodell’s chat with Bob Costas on network TV a few nights before Extravaganza No. 46. Costas asked the commissioner about issues such as ticket prices and concussions. He got polished and rehearsed non-answers. It is what good commissioners do.

On one issue, Goodell stepped on his lip. That was in answer to when Los Angeles might get an NFL team, since it has now been 17 seasons since the departure of Georgia Frontiere and Al Davis and, at last look, the L.A. marketplace remains vibrant.

Goodell cited both stadium projects — Phil Anschutz’s downtown and Ed Roski’s City of Industry site (now Grand Crossing) — as having “a great deal of potential.” He said the league wouldn’t expand to 33 teams because of scheduling problems of that odd number but said 34 would be workable.

That got ‘em buzzing in the Southland. Nothing excites TV like a lead story about the NFL coming to L.A., even though we’ve danced with these guys so many times, over so many years, that our feet hurt.

The next day, at a news conference, Goodell backpedaled. The NFL has no plans to expand, hasn’t even talked about it, he said. Shocking. Jerked around again by the NFL.

Still, there was the germ of a thought there.

Some of the real issues have been forgotten along the way. The 32 NFL owners would probably expand to 34 if they could be assured it would fatten their wallets. But the biggest negative is that, with expansion, the pot is divvied up 34 ways, not 32. Partial compensation for that is an expansion fee. In 1999, Los Angeles’ last big chance at a franchise, Texas billionaire Bob McNair wrote a check for $700 million, roughly $200 million more than the L.A. group’s. The 32 NFL owners, no dummies they, quickly calculated that dividing $700 million 32 ways was better than dividing $500 million 32 ways. Surprise, surprise. McNair got the 32nd expansion team.

Let’s be creative here, tie some strings together.

Goodell knows that neither Anschutz nor Roski, as eager as they are to get a team, is going to build stadiums, create infrastructure and also pay huge franchise fees. Understandably, the NFL can’t allow free admission to its club.

Goodell also knows he has a huge problem that isn’t going away — the public perception of NFL treatment of its aging former players. They produce a nonstop litany of horror stories, including dementia, crooked knees and elbows and constant pain, a life after the NFL that, for many, is pure hell. The perception is that the NFL talks bravely and has recently created additional pension funds and late-in-the-ballgame medical care that many see as lipstick on a pig.

Speaking of perception, there was Sunday’s postgame ceremony that included Raymond Berry, and it was another case of the NFL not quite getting it.

Berry is a league treasure. He was a star in the 1958 Baltimore Colts-New York Giants overtime game, when Alan Ameche scored in overtime for the Colts and the country suddenly discovered the NFL. That game did much to put the league on the map. In it, Berry caught 12 passes for 178 yards and a touchdown.

Sunday night his job was to carry the Super Bowl trophy to the stage for the presentations. They made an alley for him and Giants players and fans touched it or kissed it, as Berry slowly made his way. He will be 79 in three weeks. He looked bemused and confused, mostly the latter. When he got to the stage, climbing the stairs like a man with barely working knees and hips, they took the trophy and turned their backs on him.

His service had been token, an empty gesture. As the real ceremony took place, he descended the steps and disappeared into the crowd. It was supposed to be special. It looked sad, even pathetic. His fellow retirees certainly saw the same thing.

So, the NFL, as successful as it is, has two current big problems — no team in L.A. and a noisy bunch of angry retirees. Why not solve both with one wave of the wand?

Negotiate reasonable expansion fees from Anschutz and Roski, add two teams in L.A. that bring a natural rivalry and a hungry new marketplace, and use the expansion money to fund an aggressive and public program to take care of all the old guys. Track them down, every one of them. Assess their situation, be generous in the fixing and public in the doing.

Owners will be out their cut of the franchise fees, and their split of all the deals will be reduced fractionally. But the new market will more than make up for that, and the retiree problem, with its growing costs and growing public relations headaches, will be addressed and funded.

A side note: Ameche wasn’t a candidate for a Super Bowl appearance. He died in 1988, at age 55. That’s about average for former NFL players.

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