SAN FRANCISCO — In trying to explain why he disagrees with those who suggest football is an inherently dangerous contact sport that should be avoided because of the high injury rate, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell didn’t exactly strike the right tone when he broke out the couch analogy.
During his annual Super Bowl news conference Friday, Goodell was asked about the risks of football, especially in light of the fact that 13 high school football players died in 2015, and whether he was still comfortable encouraging parents of teens and preteens to play tackle football.
“If I had a son, I’d love to have him play the game of football because of the values you get,” Goodell said. “There’s risks in life. There’s risks to sitting on the couch.”
Goodell went on to talk about the benefits of teamwork, perseverance and discipline, but it was the couch line that sounded an uncomfortable note. What he appeared to mean was that sitting on the couch — and thus leading a sedentary life — can lead to health problems. It was one sentence in a 50-minute news conference, but image can be everything to a man like Goodell, and the remark fell flat, especially for an audience of parents who are rightfully concerned about the risks football presents.
It is certainly in Goodell’s interests to improve participation rates among young people in football, because they’re the ones who will ultimately turn into NFL players and become the money-generating athletes Goodell’s league needs. The intense focus on health and safety issues hasn’t had a measurable effect on the popularity of the game. In fact, pro football has never been more popular, and as Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Panthers and Broncos approaches, fans may have player safety in the back of their minds, but will not hesitate to watch the game with little regard to what impact it might have on the players’ well-being.
But if fear of football eventually dilutes the talent pool to the point where the NFL suffers on the field, then Goodell’s league will absolutely be impacted by it. He insists he’s making a good-faith effort at getting to the bottom of what appears to be an intractable injury problem — up to and including the increased attention on former players suffering from the degenerative neurological condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). But those efforts are compromised when something happens like Thursday, the day before Goodell’s news conference.
Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard player who advocates for players suffering from post-career problems through his Concussion Legacy Foundation, crashed the league’s health and safety news conference and told reporters he thinks the league is not engaged in a good-faith effort into finding the real reasons behind the CTE crisis, that the league is lying about the true risks of the game, and that he feels as if he is watching “big tobacco in real time,” a reference to the long and sordid history of cigarette manufacturers initially attempting to deny a direct link from smoking to lung cancer.
Goodell remains steadfast in his belief that the league is doing all it can to protect the players. And Giants president and co-owner John Mara grew incensed when I brought up Nowinski’s criticism a few minutes after Goodell’s news conference.
“I disagree with that,” Mara said about Nowinski’s “big tobacco” reference. “Listen, I respect , but my God, we spend a lot of time talking about this. This is not for show as far as I’m concerned. I, myself, spent a lot of hours in those meetings, both in the competition committee and in the health and safety committee. We’ve committed a lot of money for research.”
Mara takes the matter of injuries very seriously.
“For me, it’s not a game,” he said. “It’s not for show. It’s to find answers to these problems. And we’ve been involved in this business in my family since 1925. You better believe it’s important to me to find out what’s going on and to improve this going forward. This is our business. We have a lot of young men playing this game that we want to try to protect. This is not for show. This is serious business.”
It is absolutely serious business. To the point where it may ultimately mean whether the NFL survives or not in the coming decades.