On Thursday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell delivered a speech at the Harvard School of Public Health regarding the league’s role in making the game of football safer. If you’re inclined to read the full text, you can.
Or you can review the shorthand version. The one with numbers and short sentences and maybe a typo or too.
So without further adieu, here’s the list of 10 things that caught our (or at least my) attention while reviewing the transcript.
1. Goodell said that the biggest challenge the NFL faces is “[c]hanging the culture in a way that reduces the injury risk to the maximum extent possible — especially the risk of head injury.” Contained within that challenge is the difficult balance between safety and enjoyment, both for fans and players. At some point, the game can be made no safer without changing it in a way that makes people less interested in watching or participating. The NFL needs to constantly find that balance, and stay on the right side of it.
2. Goodell emphasized that the league’s responsibility extends to both former and future players, and it encompasses “the quality of playing fields, the equipment players wear, rules to protect them from unnecessary risk, programs to support their lives off the field, and post-career benefits.” As to the quality of playing field, the NFL is failing, in several specific locations.
3. In a respectful and tactful way, Goodell pointed out that concussions aren’t unique to football. Soccer, rugby, equestrian competitions, Australian Rules Football, and other sports present risks of concussions and other serious injuries. (Beyond sports, there are plenty of risks people take without being paid to take them. From jumping out of planes to climbing rock walls to riding motorcycles without helmets, people are wired to assume risks in order to do things they enjoy doing.)
4. For those who are suggesting that removing helmets will make the game safer by making players less reckless, keep in mind this fact that Goodell shared in his speech: In 1904, 18 college football players died, primarily from skull fractures. While no helmet can prevent a concussion, helmets prevent fractured skulls.
5. Goodell’s assertion that “[m]edical decisions override everything else” is not yet accurate at the NFL level. The NFL doesn’t insist on the removal from action of any player who may have sustained a concussion, presumably due to the competitive disadvantage that comes from, for example, taking a player off the field for 10 minutes to be screened for a concussion he doesn’t have. A hair-trigger approach that would compel a concussion exam for any player whose head hits the ground or who takes a blow to the head would also expand the bounty-style motivation inherent to the game, giving defensive players extra incentive to find ways to hit key offensive players in the head. Even if it doesn’t force them out of the rest of the game, it could keep them on the sidelines long enough to make a difference.
6. Goodell suggested that, at some point, there may be different helmets for different positions, based on the type of helmet that can best protect a player based on what he does on the field.
7. Goodell hinted at further possible changes to the kickoff, from eliminating it from the game to placing a weight limit on players who participate in kickoff coverage and kick returns.
8. Goodell pointed out that the Player Safety Panel has recommended that the Competition Committee “carefully review the rules on all blocks below the waist.” This acknowledges the concern from players that the NFL cares more about brains than ACLs. Concussions subside; careers can end with a serious knee injury.
9. Goodell said the NFL is testing sensors in helmets and shoulder pads that will reveal the impact of a hit. That data could be used to create an objective test for determining which players need to be checked for concussions.
10. The biggest challenge remains changing the sport’s “play-through-it” culture. Goodell shared a story regarding a 15-year-old field hockey player who said she had hit her head on the turf, blacked out, and didn’t tell anyone because she didn’t want to exit the game. The next day, she was diagnosed with a concussion. “It’s the warrior mentality,” Goodell said, “in a 15-year-old girl. This is unfortunate, but we are working with players, team doctors and coaches to change that culture. It is changing, but it will take more time, resolve, patience, and determination.”
It also requires common sense. At the NFL level, players know that, if they can’t play, they eventually won’t have jobs. Unless the NFL is willing to create salary-cap and roster exemptions for players with concussions, players will be inclined to choose short-term employment over long-term health consequences. And so they’ll continue to hide concussions.
In the end, that’s the toughest balance the NFL has to strike. How do you protect a football player from himself? At a certain point, the football player (especially once he becomes an adult) should be permitted to consciously assume all risks associated with playing football.