PHOENIX (Reuters) - With COVID-19 disruptions behind, old issues resurfaced for the National Football League as diversity and concussions were back in the spotlight during Commissioner Roger Goodell's annual Super Bowl news conference on Wednesday.
The previous two Super Bowls in Tampa and Los Angeles were both impacted to some degree by the pandemic with Goodell holding last year's state of the league media briefing outdoors as a precaution.
The commissioner was back indoors on Wednesday ahead of Sunday's title clash between the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles and he did not field a single COVID-related question. Instead, he was grilled about the league's painfully slow progress when it comes to inclusion and diversity, particularly among head coaches.
The league's commitment to diversity was even challenged by an employee of NFL Media, who pressed the commissioner as to why there is no Black person in senior newsroom management or on the news desk.
The NFL introduced its so-called Rooney Rule in 2003, which requires all teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching positions.
In 2021 the rule was expanded, compelling teams to interview at least two minority candidates for open head coaching positions and at least one minority candidate for offensive and defensive coordinator posts, often a stepping stone to the top job.
Last year at Spring meetings, the NFL introduced the 'Accelerator Program,' a new initiative that brought together 60 diverse head coach and general manager prospects with ownership representation from all 32 clubs.
In a league where so many of its star player are Black, including both Super Bowl starting quarterbacks, there are currently just four Black head coaches - long-time Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, along with the Miami Dolphins' Mike McDaniel, Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Todd Bowles, and the Houston Texans' DeMeco Ryans.
During last year's pre-game address, Goodell acknowledged that the NFL had fallen short when it comes to diversity and inclusion. While he stressed progress on that front on Wednesday, he said it was not enough.
"I still feel like there is more work ahead of us." he said. "We always look to see how we can do better. We believe diversity makes us stronger."
Another persistent headache for the NFL are concussions, which jumped 18% during the 2022 regular season after three years of decline.
The league came under intense criticism for its response to a concussion suffered by Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in September.
In a game against the Buffalo Bills, Tagovailoa was slammed to the turf and appeared unsteady as he tried to get back to his feet. Despite signs of a possible concussion, the Miami quarterback was allowed to return to the game after passing the league mandated protocol.
In the Dolphins next game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Tagovailoa had to be taken off the field on a stretcher after being sacked.
The two incidents prompted the NFL and players union to adopt enhanced concussion protocols.
"Anytime we can change the protocols to make it safer for our players we're going to do that," assured Goodell. "I think that is part of the reason concussions went up this year because we had a broader definition and more conservative definition.
"If you have more evaluations, you are going to have more concussions," he said.
"There is more work to be done in the area of helmets. We think that is a big area for us to focus.
"I think the other part of it is rules," he said. "Ultimately you want to take that hit out of the game."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Phoenix; Editing by Bill Berkrot)