By the usual reckoning, Super Bowl XLIX presents football lovers a series of tantalizing match-ups.
The Seattle Seahawks will attempt to become the league's first repeat champions in a decade against the most successful franchise of the past 15 years. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will try for a record-tying fourth Super Bowl victory against a historic Seattle defense. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll will try to outthink the most acclaimed coach in the sport, Bill Belichick, and beat the team that once fired him.
And yet fans have spent the past two weeks talking about underinflated footballs and questioning whether the NFL is capable of justly investigating a mess involving one of its signature franchises.
This Super Bowl of Deflategate or Ballghazi or whichever moniker you choose is perhaps a fitting end for one of the most turbulent seasons in league history.
Baltimore fans know all too well the agonies of the Ray Rice case — which dragged the Ravens and the NFL into an uncomfortable national debate over domestic violence and turned Roger Goodell into the most maligned commissioner in American sports.
That was only the beginning of the league's troubles. One of its greatest stars, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, was sidelined by child abuse charges. Evidence continued to emerge linking football to debilitating brain injuries. Players rebelled openly against the league's discipline policies.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told an ABC/ESPN podcast there is a "cloud" over the Super Bowl because of Goodell's sluggish responses to the controversies.
Longtime NBC broadcaster Al Michaels, who will call the Super Bowl, recently told television critics, "It's been a year that the NFL in many regards would love to forget."
In his annual state of the league address Friday, Goodell said "it's been a year of humility and learning."
Nonetheless, it's hard to call the NFL a league in crisis when fans continually flock to games and make professional football the nation's most valuable television property.
"Obviously, there are plenty of things to be concerned about, but if the NFL were a stock, I'd definitely be long on it," said former Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth, who served as president of the NFL Players Association. "Maybe not in 30 years or 50, but for the next 10, I'm buying that stock."
Foxworth, who attended Harvard Business School and now works as chief operating officer for the NBA Players Association, said the NFL faces real long-term concerns over the health impacts of the game and an inability to build a global audience, at least relative to soccer or basketball.
But good luck finding evidence of waning popularity at the moment.
Business still booming
Forbes analyst Mike Ozanian, who generates the financial publication's annual franchise valuations for pro football and baseball, wrote that "there is no brand I can think of that is as powerful as the NFL."
He made the statement just as the Rice controversy reached its zenith in September. And in fact, public outrage did little to derail viewership that affords the NFL billions of dollars a year in television revenue.
Of the 50 most-watched episodes of television this past fall, 45 were NFL games. An NFL game was the nation's highest rated program each of the 17 weeks of the league's regular season. More than 100 million people are expected to watch the Patriots and Seahawks on Sunday evening, and companies lined up to pay $4 million for each 30 seconds of ad time.
A recent Harris poll found pro football remains the nation's most popular sport by a wide margin, with 32 percent of those asked listing it as their favorite compared to 16 percent for second-place baseball. That gap is slightly smaller than in 2013, when pro football was the first choice of 35 percent. But the game is more popular, relatively, than it was 20 years ago.
"I think fans compartmentalize a lot of this," Michaels said in his remarks to the Television Critics Association. "They know what's going on. They know there's a lot of stuff that needs to be cleaned up. They understand that. They read about it and they hear about it. But when you get to Super Bowl weekend, the fan basically says, 'I want my football.' And that gets borne out in the ratings on Sunday and Monday."
In a perverse way, the raging controversy over the Patriots' use of deflated game balls in the AFC championship — Brady and Belichick have denied any wrongdoing but the NFL's investigation is ongoing — only emphasizes the NFL's remarkable hold on us. What other league could dominate national headlines for almost two weeks with stories of sketchy equipment handling and the physics of air pressure?
But the story speaks to a more serious issue — the lack of confidence in Goodell's ability to run a just league, frequently expressed by fans and especially the players themselves.
When he was asked about "Deflategate," star Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman noted the cozy relationship between Goodell and Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
"Will they be punished?" Sherman said. "Probably not. Not as long as Robert Kraft and Goodell are still taking pictures at their respective homes. I think he was just at Kraft's house last week for the AFC championship. Talk about conflict of interest."
Goodell was asked Friday about the possible conflict of interest and said it's hardly unusual for him to maintain close working relationships with owners.
Meanwhile, the NFL Players Association has filed a formal grievance against the league's personal conduct policy, arguing Goodell imposed the rules outside the required bounds of collective bargaining. Players have long questioned how the commissioner can serve as both judge and appeals court. Foxworth said the mistrust goes back to his time as a union leader; he was elected vice president of the NFLPA in 2008.
Many players saw validation in an arbitrator's decision last November that Goodell had improperly punished Rice twice for the same offense.
"To a degree, these situations have become a rallying cry for the players," Foxworth said. "And if they feel threatened, that could be bad for the status quo, which has been great for the owners. I don't think the players are there yet, but they're getting closer and closer."
'An opportunity' for progress
On another level of severity entirely, Goodell and the Ravens have spent months attempting to repair the damage from their handling of the Rice case. The league has implemented more intensive training programs for every team and pledged $5 million a year to anti-violence organizations. Individual franchises, including the Ravens, have also made significant donations to nonprofits that work with abuse victims.
The NFL will run a 30-second public service ad during the opening quarter of the Super Bowl, featuring audio of an abuse victim calling 911 under the guise of ordering a pizza.
Critics will also have their say. The anti-sexism group UltraViolet has paid for trucks to circulate through Phoenix all weekend with billboards reading: "55 Cases of Domestic Abuse Unanswered: #GoodellMustGo." The group has also spent tens of thousands of dollars on web ads depicting a woman being tackled by a football player.
On Friday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat and frequent critic of the league, released a letter he wrote to Goodell, slamming the NFL's $5 million-a-year pledge as insufficient.
"Although I am glad the NFL has recognized the necessity of addressing this issue, this amount is barely a fraction of the financial support needed by organizations that every day provide shelter, counseling, and education across the country," Blumenthal wrote. "Compared with the $10 million per year that is spent on its Super Bowl halftime show—not to mention the $5 billion the NFL earns each year in television rights—this amount seems terribly insufficient. If the NFL is serious about its commitment to combating domestic violence, it could contribute many times more."
Former Baltimore Colts defensive lineman Joe Ehrmann was one of a small group of advisers Goodell called to New York after TMZ posted video in September of Rice striking his future wife, Janay Palmer, in an Atlantic City casino in February.
Ehrmann, 65, has long called for more intensive character education in sports and for frank talk about abuse. He quickly appeared in a video, circulated to NFL owners, imploring everyone in the league to consider the possible impacts of violence on the women in their own lives.
Three months later, Ehrmann says he is optimistic the NFL will become a national leader on an issue few public institutions handle well.
"I'm hopeful that what has transpired will turn into something incredibly positive," he said Wednesday. "I know Roger Goodell is remorseful and has a real belief that he got it wrong. And I believe he has the integrity to try to get it right."
The process has to begin well before players reach the NFL, Ehrmann said, with young athletes learning domestic violence is incompatible with an acceptable image of manhood. Given the scale of that quest, he said we won't know for years if the Rice story prompted real change.
But he said he's come away from every meeting with players and league officials believing they want to use the NFL's massive platform for good.
"It's an opportunity," Ehrmann said. "I hope we don't waste it."