In addressing media during Super Bowl hype week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sounded dismissive of his most enduring crisis, brain injury to most of the players. “There’s risk in sitting on the couch,” he observed.
An NFL player, Chris Long, responded, tweeting in the aftermath of Super Bowl 50: “Blessed to survive a night on the couch. But I know the risks.”
Goodell appeared untroubled by the number of concussions in his league rising 58% since 2014, as the bodies grow ever larger and faster. By the laws of physics, collisions of these masses have more impact as they increase in size and speed.
This is not your father’s NFL. Hall of Fame center Mike Webster in the 1970s weighed 255 pounds and still got his brains pounded to mush. Today’s linemen weigh about 50 pounds more than in Webster’s day.
As autopsies on football players become more detailed, more technologically advanced, there’s more brain disease there than anyone imagined. At Boston University doctors have found 90 damaged brains among the 94 deceased NFL players they’ve examined.
Goodell’s riff on concussion was punctuated by news out of Boston that deceased Hall of Fame quarterback Ken Stabler had chronic traumatic encephala. . . let’s just call it CTE. Stabler reached Stage 3, out of 4 before he died at 69 of colon cancer.
Granted, the sample for the Boston studies is small and biased, as some players who wanted their brains examined, such as Stabler, knew they had problems. There’s more science to be done before we know the percentage of CTE in NFL players. Perhaps it’s less than 95 percent, but it’s surely much higher than is found in couch potatoes.
Goodell insists he’s doing what he can to reduce violence in the sport. Even if the violence is what fans love most about the sport. He pushed through rule changes to clamp down on the assassins, and he cut back on collisions in practice sessions. He trumpeted the $100 million his league has spent on concussion research, “not just to make football safer. This is going to make all sports safer, the military safer.
Well, if it helps the troops, I’m for it, of course. Let’s have 2,000 American athletes be guinea pigs in experiments on preventing concussion. We can applaud their patriotism.
We wouldn’t want to do anything truly significant until all the science is in and can then be ignored. Maybe, just to test one trendy theory, we should have a preseason game with no helmets.
Goodell’s latest innovation: automatic ejection of any player who incurs his second personal foul penalty in a game. Sort of like the yellow cards/red card in soccer.
The players’ union will reject Goodell’s proposal because, for one thing, they don’t respect him, and for another, it would mean more fines for them and probably less safety.
Suppose Von Miller, Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, is flagged for roughing the passer. Now the opponents know if they can goad him into a second penalty, he’s out of the game for good. It could be like hockey, where “goons” are dispatched to start a fight with the opponent’s star player to shut him into the penalty box for an extended time.
The house is on fire, so Roger arrives with a bucket of water. Or is it lighter fluid? Well, what do we expect from him? A recent national poll placed Goodell’s job approval at 28 percent. Only a handful of U.S. presidents have ever rated that low.
Goodell will never live down Bountygate, when his hand-picked arbitrator, and his mentor, Paul Tagliabue, ruled against him in 2012. Then came the bungling of the domestic violence issue: too little, too slow punishment of Ray Rice. Then Deflategate, too much punishment of Tom Brady. Or so a federal judge ruled.
Most CEOs making mistakes as costly, foolish and embarrassing to the corporation would be gone. But being a tax-subsidized monopoly earning $12 billion a year, Goodell’s NFL keeps its investors happy. Of course it’s All About the Money and always is, but public image is worth something too.
Goodell’s blindness to concussion could lead to innumerable tragedies, including crippling financial losses to the NFL.
What he fails to acknowledge, even though he’s paid $37 million a year to pay attention: the spectacular knockouts (several of which Stabler endured) are not what cause most CTE. It’s more the cumulative effect of routine collisions that rattle skulls on almost every snap — in games or in scrimmages, pro, college, high school and lower.
In the movie Concussion, Dr. Bennet Omalu is played well enough by Will Smith to win an Oscar if black people were eligible. He performs the autopsy on Webster, the Pittsburgh Steeler who committed suicide at 50 after battling what he himself called “madness” — pulling out his teeth and reattaching them with super-glue.
The Webster demise shocked us because we hadn’t seen him knocked out on the field, or even wobbling. Nobody tackles the center.
Although Concussion, with its morbid theme, is no box-office hit, its ominous message is circulating, increasingly conveyed by mainstream media. Attitudes are rapidly changing. The Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix revealed a study showing that one third of the parents in the area won’t allow their children to play football.
As fathers steer their sons to baseball or lacrosse, Goodell should wonder what’s next. Perhaps fathers stop watching football on TV when their sons are home. Eventually, many stop watching the game altogether.
I’ve loved football since I was 6, and I want it to survive. But major change is needed, before it’s annihilated by litigation or overzealous lawmakers fearful of the public safety and seeking attention.
So why not try this? Abolish the running game. It’s going to happen eventually. It’s been losing ground, so to speak, for a century.
I know that’s radical, but hey, America is in a radical mood. Much of the country loves Donald Trump, who will build a wall that makes the iron curtain look like a shower curtain. And on the other side is Bernie Sanders, branding himself a socialist, promising that as president he will break up the biggest banks and turn Wall Street into a ski slope.
And speaking again of presidents, in a week in which we honor them with a holiday, it was Teddy Roosevelt who instigated the most radical change in football history: the forward pass. With public outcry over 18 deaths from college football in 1905, TR found an alternative to running plays that usually ended, as he noted, in high-speed crashes, a pileup of bodies, and bruises if not broken bones and worse.
There’s much less physical impact in pass protection than run blocking. Instead of slamming head-on into the defensive front, the offensive linemen are backing up. Most of the tackling is one on one. A majority of pass plays end in no tackling at all — incomplete, out of bounds or touchdown.
We could have something like the Run and Shoot of the 1990s, when the game was not over if you led by 30 at halftime, as the Houston Oilers learned in a famous postseason meltdown. There was no power game to drain the clock, no drive blocking, though the tailback occasionally took a handoff on a draw, just to temper the pass rush. If there were no runs allowed, the same effect could come from screen passes.
Over the past half-century football has evolved, on amateur levels as well as pro, into more and more a passing game. The more passing, the more popular the game. Though pass-only would be riskier than Roger Goodell’s couch (quarterbacks will still be sacked), it would be a far safer game than it is now.
Yes we might miss the broken-field runs of an O.J. Simpson. But Dr. Omalu said he “would bet my medical license” that Simpson suffers from CTE. The implication being it might have led to murders. And could lead to more. It led to the suicides of Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and other retired players.
I gave my grandson a football for Christmas, remembering how I enjoyed tossing one around the yard when I was 9. But now I’m second-guessing myself, thinking of a poster in a doctor’s office: “Give your son a motorcycle for his last birthday.”
My hope is that young Wyatt will throw the football, catch it and kick it. But never carry it into a line of scrimmage. Why should anyone do that? With what we now know about concussion? Would you offer a kid a cigarette?