Ten takeaways from Goodell’s Harvard speech


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.

24 responses to “Ten takeaways from Goodell’s Harvard speech

  1. Are you kidding me? He seriously talked about removing kickoffs or setting weight limits??? The world really is coming to an end.

  2. I’m for making the game safer but at a certain point you’ve got to say either play the game knowing the risks that come with it or don’t. Nobody is forcing you to play it.

    As far as #10 goes it’s something that will likely never change. The warrior mentality is what drives these athletes to push themselves and be great and why they are able to push themselves ahead of their peers. You’re also not going to change the fact that guys aren’t going to let their team or teammates down by not battling with them.

  3. There are better designs in helmets but because of the cosmetic factor they are not used. Also, only a helmet is required not an advanced one. They will have a hard time eliminating concussions but they can still reduce them.

    Take a layered design to the helmet and it will help reduce damage. An outer layer that is foam based, a secondary harder shell and then the inner padding. This will cause the helmet to be less likely to injury during a collision with another helmet as the padding will disperse the impact zone.

  4. Is the NCAA going to be in on the need to approach the vicious hitting around the head? How about the late hits in college?

  5. I saw South Park’s “Sarcastiball” the other evening, it addresses some of these concerns. Worth the watch.

  6. I’m all for player safety, but removing kickoffs is the stupidest idea. It would change the dynamic of the game too much from returning a kick to help get your team back into the game to on side kicks.

  7. Did Roger happen to mention playing Thursday night games each and every week as part of his player safety plan? I’m sure those short weeks are great for the health of the players. Roger sure does care about these players, doesn’t he?

  8. Weight limits are a good idea, but not just for kickoffs. There should be weight limits by position for any NFL player. It’s the only way to reduce risk and keep the same game we love. When players weigh less, the impact will be less. Not to mention the side benefit that players won’t have to ‘roid up to keep a job.

  9. How about expanding the 53 man roster so teams can afford to sit players suspected to have concussions? Oh yeah, that’s right, owners don’t want to pay more people. What a joke. Teams should be allowed to have players ready for play when players go down. Maybe they wouldn’t be so quick to rush a someone back on the field if they could sustain the loss.

  10. I’d really hate to see the violent nature of football eliminated, but how about less padding? I’m not talking leather helmets, but maybe more along the lines of lacrosse helmets. Sounds a bit radical but with less padding players might be less likely to use equipment as a weapon. It might make tackling more technique oriented and less collision oriented. The game will still be fast and violent, but safer. Just a thought.

  11. jelliot1978 says:
    Nov 16, 2012 11:06 AM
    There are better designs in helmets but because of the cosmetic factor they are not used. Also, only a helmet is required not an advanced one. They will have a hard time eliminating concussions but they can still reduce them.

    Take a layered design to the helmet and it will help reduce damage. An outer layer that is foam based, a secondary harder shell and then the inner padding. This will cause the helmet to be less likely to injury during a collision with another helmet as the padding will disperse the impact zone.


    Great, now can you share with us your ideas on how to remove devastating ALC injuries that END careers? So much focus on the head, yet over 90% of all football players careers are ended with serious ligament injuries. Knees, ankles, etc. Why is everyone so focused on just fixing the gear around the head?

    People need to start realizing a hard cold fact, you change any aspect of the VIOLENCE of the game, you change the game itself. You cant have both. So people need to start choosing what they want, a watered down, nicer version or the ferocious of the battle.

    Oh, and we have Thursday night game now 17 weeks out of the year instead of the final 8 weeks. When I was growing up the only time they played on a Thursday was Thanksgiving. That can’t be the best way to “protect” player safety, but it can be the best way to “inflate the owners profit margin.” People are funny, they cry about one thing yet accept another.

  12. I am nit in favor of dropping kickoffs.

    If it has to be though why not do a punt from the 35 to start the game, 3rd Q and after any score. Punting after a safety would remain intact.

    You have to maintain 7 guys on the line each and can’t rush the punter and the punting team can’t run a fake. That will engage peopple immediately and the wedge would not exist.

    More refinement would still be needed but you get the idea.

  13. He and the NFL have no choice; they have to do this. He did however have a choice about how to help get his message out there, and he didn’t have to destroy Fujita and Vilma’s reputation to do it which is what he did. That is strictly on him, when every legit sportswriter and outsider, including the conservatvie 3 member panel said he overreached and overpunished. I will say once again that those two would never be listed in anyone’s top 200 of dirty players.

  14. As for #9 having sensors in pads to register the impact, it can be a new measurement to rank players that I’m sure they wouldn’t abuse it to try and out do each other. Who’s the biggest hitter? let’s go to the shoulder pad hit meter. It can be a fantasy stat.
    How about going back to the 50’s when you had to hold the guy down for a count, that will bring back tackling and end the launching.

  15. Roger is the one catching all the well-deserved flack for the new rules and fines. However, it’s the lawyers who, once again ruined this game. They are the ones filing lawsuits on behalf of ex-players. They are the ones advising Roger to reduce future liablity by making these seemingly absurd rules now. They can go to court later and show that they “tried” to implement these so-called safety rules and actually punished players for violating said rules.

    The name of the game is liability. This is what is bringing down the NFL, not Roger.

  16. “The NFL will be unwatchable in 10 years”
    10 years? I’d say we’re just about there already. Touchbacks on most kickoffs, flags on nearly any hit on a QB or over the middle, the inevitable “are you kidding me?!” groan from the crowd when the flags fly, a new wave of rule changes every single year watering down the game we remember.

    Not to mention that the NFL has severely watered down the quality of the games by overexposing the product with games every Thursday night. Used to be that I would never miss a game or let the wife watch her shows while football is on. Now? Meh, don’t really care about missing a game so much when the NFL’s on 3 nights every week and it’s not what it used to be anyway.

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