Super Bowl to Soul Searching: NFL Enters an Offseason Full of Uncomfortable Questions

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The NFL's longest year is finally over.

It ended on a field outside Phoenix, in one of the most heart-stopping conclusions in Super Bowl history, as the New England Patriots edged the Seattle Seahawks 28-24 to claim their fourth title of the century.

But as the league enters its offseason, to the extent that there is one anymore, and as it bathes in the glow of what will almost certainly be astronomical television ratings for its showcase game, it must still confront the thorny problems that plagued it all year.

On Super Bowl Sunday, the anti-sexism organization UltraViolet drove billboard trucks around Phoenix to call attention to what it claims are 55 unaddressed and NFL-related abuse cases. It also called for the resignation of Commissioner Roger Goodell.

Looming between now and the kickoff of the 2015 season on Sept. 10 will be Ray Rice, who is free to sign with any team after an arbitrator ruled that Goodell had acted haphazardly in punishing the running back for decking his fiancée in an elevator.

Adrian Peterson, a former Most Valuable Player who pleaded no contest to misdemeanor reckless assault for whipping his 4-year-old son, is also eligible for reinstatement next season, and the NFL players union is suing to fight the terms of his suspension.

The union is also fighting the league's imposition of a tougher personal conduct policy, which establishes an independent investigative process for domestic-violence claims and allows for consulting by outside experts on sexual assault.

The union, which has its own domestic violence commission and is preparing its own report on the Rice investigation, says the NFL acted outside the collective bargaining agreement in pushing the new policy through.

"We're going to be grieving this as far as we can," the union president, Eric Winston, told reporters last week in Phoenix.

The league is still fighting to prove that it is doing enough to prevent concussions and brain damage — perhaps the biggest threat to the long-term health and prosperity of America's most popular sport.

Goodell said Friday that the league will hire a chief medical officer, and he said that rule changes resulted in 25 percent fewer concussions and 68 percent fewer hits to "defenseless players."

But an analysis by The Associated Press last week of laws designed to prevent concussions in children, passed in every state with heavy lobbying help from the NFL, raised questions about whether they are tough enough.

Goodell, in his speech Friday on the state of the league, said it had been a year of "humility and learning" for the league and for him. "We've done a lot of soul-searching, starting with yours truly, and we have taken action."

He drew fire, though, for a one-liner aimed at Rachel Nichols of CNN, who had asked him about conflicts of interest in NFL investigations, including its probing of whether the Patriots deflated footballs before the AFC championship.

That investigation is another question mark for the NFL offseason, and it raises the uncomfortable question of whether the newly crowned champs broke the rules on their way to the title. Goodell has pledged a "thorough and objective" probe and said the report will be made public.

Robert Kraft, the Patriots' owner, has already predicted that the probe will turn up nothing, and he has pre-emptively demanded an apology from the NFL.

All of it has made for what Goodell conceded was a "tough year" for the league.

Al Michaels, who called Super Bowl XLIX for NBC Sports, told MSNBC's "Morning Joe" that Goodell "blew it" in the early stages of the Rice investigation. But he said he believed Goodell had weathered the storm of calls for his resignation.

While fans have clearly been uncomfortable with the off-field revelations of this season, "I'll tell you what's crazy to me: When did Roger Goodell become America's sheriff?" Michaels said.

"The NFL cannot be America's moral arbiter," he went on. "I'm not making excuses for the league. I think they're trying like hell to make things better."

All this is happening in the absence of any sign that the game is losing any significant amount of popularity.

The past five Super Bowls have drawn more than 100 million viewers, and when the ratings for Super Bowl XLIX come out, they could surpass last year's for the most viewers in American television history, a figure that does not account for population growth.

Brad Adgate, senior vice president for research at the marketing company Horizon Media, predicted that the game would draw at least 110 million viewers, even after the league's troubled year.

"No one else can attract the consistent viewers on television like the NFL," he said.

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