A Real Head Case

These days Roger Goodell, Commissioner of the NFL, finds himself at a crossroads.  He’s trying to keep the balance in a sport that is literally playing at the top of its game.  NFL Football is basking in the glory of enormous popularity, profits, and potential.  But at the same time, it’s being haunted by ghosts from its past.  Retired players with nagging injuries and dwindling fortunes, a class action lawsuit filed by retired players with concussion symptoms, and the sad death of Junior Seau, one of many (too many) professional football players who had difficulty adjusting outside of the bright lights of the NFL and chose to take his own life.  For Goodell, it is an unenviable position.  And how he handles it will determine the future of the sport many say is America’s new favorite pastime.

Goodell is not alone in his quest for balance.  Current players are walking the line themselves.  They weigh their livelihoods playing the game they love, while still paying due respect to those who paved the way for them.  And some of those players are becoming ever more vocal.  Chad Ochocinco, wide receiver for the New England Patriots and never one to shy away from publicity, penned a letter to Roger Goodell voicing his support for the commissioner and referring to him as “dad.”  Ochocinco suggests that turning off the “NFL PR Machine” may be a start.  “Y’all do a darn near perfect job at portraying this game as one played by heroes.  But let’s be real dad. This is a nasty, dirty and violent game with consequences. Sign up or go get a regular job.  Watch it or turn off the TV and go fishing with your kids. It is really that simple.”

The league has acknowledged the issue and has taken action to reduce the number of concussions from the game.  New tackling rules that protect quarterbacks and defenseless receivers, better testing and new rules diagnose concussed players and govern when they can return to the game, even better helmets, designed to reduce the impact of hard hits.  But even that isn’t without controversy.  Former players say it’s not enough and current players say it’s destroying the game.  Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard has gone so far as to predict that the NFL as we know it will be extinct in 20 to 30 years.  He told a Houston radio station, “This is football.  It’s not powder puff.  When Nike unveiled their new uniforms, I’m surprised they didn’t have flags on the side.”  Pollard goes on to say such measures are “taking away the game of football.”

Yes, the game comes with risks.  Big risks.  And the NFL and the Players Union need to be realistic about that and do what they can to both educate and protect players from preventable injury.  But there are risks in other professions too.  Police, firefighters, even military personnel all carry a great deal of risk.  And many of them will have issues, both mental and physical, that will follow them into retirement.  But they’re not making millions of dollars a year to incur that risk.  Nor are they paying attorneys to go after their former employers to collect on their behalf.

Where does league issue become player responsibility?  And how will it be determined whether the league did enough to protect those players during and after their careers?  Former NFL wide receiver Cris Carter acknowledged the difficulty in the ESPN documentary Outside the Lines, saying, “I can’t blame the NFL for every issue that every former player in the NFL has.”

As the NFL teams prepare their summer training programs, the concussion issue will undoubtedly weigh heavily on Roger Goodell’s mind.  In reconciling it, the future of the sport, America’s new favorite pastime, and our future Sundays are at stake.  We’re counting on you, dad.  No pressure.