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It has been the weirdest off-season in the NFL in a long time. And it’s getting even weirder.

From a public policy standpoint, one of the most interesting things to come up so far about San Diego has been NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s recent comments that the city will either need to build a new stadium or (and this was the interesting part) completely renovate Qualcomm Stadium.

Howzat?! Those of us who have been watching this issue for several years have been working on the assumption that a renovation was completely unacceptable and unrealistic to the NFL and the Chargers. To hear him even float something contradictory was odd.

The Union-Tribune noticed the importance of this statement right away. Goodell said it during an interview he was giving to a guy named Rick Horrow.

What did Goodell actually say about San Diego? According to the Union Tribune:

“The team has been successful there,” he said, according to a transcript e-mailed to media outlets by Horrow’s publicist. “They have their challenges, as (do) other markets. It’s clear the stadium needs to be either completely renovated or a new stadium built in (San Diego).”

The Chargers and their point man, Mark Fabiani, quickly said Goodell didn’t imply, or shouldn’t have implied that renovation, was an option.

Again from the U-T:

Fabiani said, “It’s just not feasible, either technically or financially, and that’s something that has been proven over and over again by anyone who has looked at it over the years.”

Three things: 1) Goodell doesn’t just say anything. Just like high-level lawyers don’t just say things. They know their words mean things. This thought was in his head for some reason. 2) He seems kind of spooked about the economy. Note his well publicized decision to cut his salary by several million in a sign of good faith. The economy’s problems were a main focus of the off-season NFL owners meetings. Goodell et al have also made it known they are worried about the possibility of blackouts coming soon — when local sports fans will not be able to watch their teams on television because the economy will hamper ticket sales.

And finally, 3) As far as I know, Goodell hasn’t retracted this statement. It appears he hasn’t been terribly anxious to retract or clarify the statement — and the Chargers don’t seem to be terribly anxious to get him to.

I called Fabiani to see if Goodell had made things more clear to the team. Fabiani pointed me to this statement.

Fabiani said the lead paragraph came almost directly from NFL headquarters.

According to the Commissioner’s Office in New York, the Commissioner was not advocating a renovation. He was simply acknowledging the Chargers need a new stadium somehow. The means of reaching this goal are to be determined by the Chargers and the community.

Hello! That’s not a retraction at all. Could have easily said “the commissioner was mistaken when he indicated that renovation was an option. He now wanted to clarify that it is not.”

Is this their version of a trial balloon? Is the NFL spooked about the economy and coming to terms with how hard it would be to build a new stadium in California right now? Cities are burdened by historic deficits and it would take a lot of courage (or stupidity?) to build new condominiums or commercial developments these days — and yet that was exactly how the Chargers’ hoped to finance a new stadium in lieu of a direct taxpayer subsidy.

You have a mayor here uninterested in talking about a new stadium and efforts in Chula Vista, National City and Oceanside have failed. No proposal has been on the table since Andrew Donohue had big hair.

Perhaps, as with his salary, Goodell is bending to harsh economic realities?

Fabiani told me to go to him if I wanted more explanation.

I got on the phone with Greg Aiello, the NFL’s vice president for public relations. Aiello called it a “complete non story.” OK, so I asked him to clarify once and for all that renovating the stadium is not an option.

“[Goodell] wasn’t taking a position of advocating anything. It was an option that was considered and didn’t work. It was considered. It’s not an option that works,” Aiello told me.

I told him I didn’t say that it looked like Goodell was advocating a renovation. I said San Diegans have been working under the assumption since 2002 that another renovation was unacceptable to the team and the league. And so, it was news to us the NFL would consider renovation acceptable. After all, it was Goodell’s predecessor who warned San Diego it would never get another Super Bowl unless it got a new stadium. Was this position changing? Was another renovation an option to get back in the good graces of the league?

“The Chargers have made that clear and I’m saying it on [Goodell’s] behalf. It’s not an option if the Chargers say it’s not an option,” Aiello said.

I asked him if the NFL would consider bringing the Super Bowl back to San Diego if the stadium was only renovated.

He said that it would be “up to the owners.”

“[Goodell] was explaining what needed to be done one way or the other,” Aiello said.

One way or the other? That clear it up? Seems a lot more complicated than it has to be.

Finally, about the economy. It appears likely that some or many of the Chargers’ games locally will be blacked out unless ticket sales pick up. On ESPN’s SportsNation recently, snark-man Colin Cowherd blasted San Diego fans while talking about the NFL’s explanation that the economy might cause these blackouts.

Cowherd didn’t buy it.

The economy is a lame excuse. It’s like these retailers who say ‘Sales were down because of cold weather in the Northeast.’ It’s always cold in the northeast. You either buy a coat or a dress or you don’t buy a coat or a dress.

The economy is a lame excuse and here’s why: The economy is not great in Buffalo — they sell out a huge stadium. The economy is not great in Pittsburgh — they sell out their games. It’s not great in Cleveland — they sell out their games. The economy is not great in Chicago — they sell out their games.

San Diego’s economy is no worse than anybody else’s, either is Jacksonville’s. They don’t care enough. Those fans don’t care enough. Even when San Diego is great, Charger fans have always struggled to fill the stadium early enough to lift the blackout. The economy can be used for a lot of things. This? It’s lame.

Ouch. For a team hoping for a new stadium, the last thing it wants is a reputation for apathetic fans.

Fabiani’s response? First, San Diego has sold out regularly for the last half of the decade (though the team’s been aided by television stations and other local businesses hoping to avoid blackouts at times).

“People outside of the state might not appreciate the depths of the economic problems here. Things are really bad in California. Evidence is clear that the economy is really hurting in California almost more than anyplace else,” Fabiani said.

SCOTT LEWIS

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