Roger Goodell’s timing seemed odd, with his Harvard School of Public Health speech on player safety coming after a week in which three starting NFL quarterbacks were knocked out of games with concussions.
No matter, because the NFL commissioner is nothing if not a spin doctor extraordinaire. He cited the fact the quarterbacks were all removed from games as evidence of the progress the NFL has made in identifying head injuries and trying to limit their impact.
“The simple truth is that any physical activity comes with risk and reward,” Goodell said. “Head injuries occur in sports.”
They do, though the NFL sure took a long time to admit it. For years the league insisted there was no link between what happened on Sundays on the field and what happened to the brains of players afterward.
The culture has changed, and Goodell wastes no chance to remind us of that. His speech Thursday night touched on everything from player safety in the days before the NFL even existed (18 college players died in 1904 alone) to what the league might be doing in the near future (different helmets for each position, weight limits on kickoff teams) to help prevent devastating head injuries.
The NFL is helping fund studies on concussions, giving $30 million to the National Institutes of Health and teaming with players for another $100 million in similar research over the next decade. There are 100 former NFL players taking part in research led by Boston University to find a diagnosis for the degenerative brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, more commonly known as CTE.
New kickoff rules are working to reduce concussions, and others are under consideration. Violent collisions will always be the attraction of the game just as knockouts are in boxing, but it’s Goodell’s contention that big hits can be managed more safely without changing the game so much that fans won’t watch.
Meanwhile, not a game goes by without someone in the announcer’s booth talking about the dangers of helmet-to-helmet hits.
“Players and coaches have adjusted. They always do,” Goodell said. “We now see fewer dangerous hits to the head and noticeable changes in the way the game is being played.”
The good news for today’s players is that there have been some real changes and they’ll have a better chance of having a decent life after football than players did before them. That’s especially true when it comes to the condition of their brains, though the risk of long term injury remains very real.
Football is still a hurt business, and always will be. Nothing will make it completely safe, especially in an era when players seem to get bigger and faster every year.
But there might come a day when there’s enough research and information available so a parent can make a decision on whether their child plays football or not. There might be a time when players themselves can assess their future health risks and decide whether to continue their careers.
That will be good for the game itself, and certainly good for the NFL, which rode the wave of big hits to become by far the most popular sport in the country. No one can guarantee player safety, but it’s hard to argue with the league itself making it a priority.
Left unsaid in Goodell’s speech, though, was what to do with the players of the past. Not the college players of 1904, but the NFL players of recent decades.
Goodell didn’t mention them, and with good reason. Thousands of them are suing the NFL over brain-related injuries, and the NFL is fighting them with all the lawyers it can muster at every turn.
These aren’t just practice squad members or fringe players trying to cash in on short careers. There are some big names among the 3,500 plaintiffs, including Tony Dorsett and at least 26 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. One of the plaintiffs, former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling, committed suicide in April at age 62, and an autopsy found he had CTE.
His widow and the other plaintiffs claim the NFL not only exposed players to risk they shouldn’t have taken, but deceived them and club doctors by insisting repeatedly that head trauma carried little long-term risk.
“On the NFL’s watch, football has become the site of perhaps the gravest health crisis in the history of sports,” lawyers for the former players argued in motions last month asking a judge to reject the NFL’s efforts to dismiss their suits.
The suits have the potential of costing the NFL money, and lots of it. That’s why the league has fought them so hard, no matter how at odds the stance is with the current push toward safer play.
One of Goodell’s mantras in his speech at Harvard was that the game is evolving, and for the better. Change, he said, can only improve the sport and the league along with it.
He’s right about that. But there’s something else the NFL can change, too.
Doing something to improve the lives of the guys who helped get the league where it is today would be a good place to start.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg