SAN FRANCISCO — Please be careful Sunday sitting on your sofa watching the Super Bowl . Please. As NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell informed us at his annual state of the game address, football might be hazardous, but “there are risks in life. There are risks sitting on a couch.” Indeed there are. You could get your head caught in a pull-out sleeper.
Or as one Twitter wit wrote, “Gotta watch out for those deadly couch concushions.”
It’s not funny, actually. It’s not funny at all. It would only be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous. Goodell didn’t say something ill considered because he’s a blockhead. The remark was part of a league strategy comparable to the tobacco industry covering up the harmful effects of teenage smoking. Asked whether the NFL is comfortable endorsing tackle football for kids, Goodell said, “I’d want my son to play football,” and conflated the dangers of brain trauma with the health benefits of exercise — as if discouraging kids from playing tackle football is tantamount to encouraging them to stay indoors and get diabetes. It was nonsense. Disingenuous, willfully deceptive nonsense, and he knows it.
“Nobody is saying kids shouldn’t exercise; we’re saying don’t hit them in the head,” says Chris Nowinski, co-founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation and a co-director of Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center. “He’s defending an indefensible position.”
Goodell was responding to a question about the deaths of seven teenagers from on-field trauma this season, but also speaking in the larger context of the NFL’s ongoing CTE crisis. A growing body of science shows CTE is caused by the neurological toll from years of sub-concussive hits. The NFL’s own figures show that one in three former players will develop cognitive diseases, and at much younger ages than the general population. That is not your average risk. It’s an astronomically high danger.
The science is clear: You get CTE from repeated head trauma, and it’s therefore advisable to rethink whether we should limit contact for the young.
But Goodell takes you and me for stupid. The commissioner’s annual address is a performance with a backdrop of triumphal music and glittering gold shield and shining trophies. You end up feeling like you’re sitting in a Roman praetorium listening to an army imperator. There are planted questions, clearly stage-managed propaganda moments, all calculated to distract or sow confusion and doubt over brain science.
Which is perhaps why the NFL ended Goodell’s session so abruptly, just as a roomful of reporters began to bore in on him on health issues and ask about Calvin Johnson’s reported decision to retire at the age of 30. Several players have now walked away in their prime hoping to conserve their minds and bodies, including Jake Locker, at 26, and Chris Borland, at 24.
Goodell intoned that he wants “young men to lead long healthy lives.” He offered up technological advances that supposedly make the game safer. He droned preachily about the virtues of the game, “the discipline, the teamwork, the perseverance.” “Those are values and those are skills,” he said, “that will lead you through life, and I believe football is the best to teach that.”
It’s not working. No one believes Goodell, least of all mothers, despite the league’s brazen Mommy marketing. In response to Goodell’s remark that football is a better teacher than other games, tennis great Chris Evert, who has three sons, tweeted: “I can name a few. And they’re safer.”
Not even his own constituency is buying it. Mike Ditka has said he wouldn’t let a son play football because he has too many friends who are debilitated. Brett Favre, too, has confessed anxiety over whether his young grandsons should play tackle because, as he told ESPN, “I don’t think the cumulative of playing 20 years of football, plus in college, plus in high school, has a positive effect on you.”
We all know the truth: The NFL has no moral center on this, no defensible posture, just marketing. Goodell is doing the bidding of owners trying to maximize revenue and duck the true cost of their business. “Let’s remember that the entire organization is just meant to enhance the bank accounts of 32 families,” Nowinski says. “They’re trying to use our children to make money.”
At some point, the league is in for a reckoning. When players retire at 25 and even your own legends don’t buy your bull, you’re asking for the bottom to fall out of your business. You’re also asking for a future of endless litigation and perhaps enforced regulation.
But there is one marketing strategy the league hasn’t tried: truth and transparency. If Goodell were a good, strong commissioner, instead of posing as a Roman senator, he would lobby the owners to get out ahead of the health issue once and for all by leveling with players and the audience. Instead of telling us football is better than couch potatoing, here is what he should have said:
“The emerging science is emotionally difficult to accept for all of us who love football, and disturbing for any parent. While the game has undeniable benefits, those are obviously counterbalanced by grave physical costs. We therefore endorse the recommendation of brain researchers that parents think very seriously about withholding children from tackle before the age of 13 — flag football is a great game, and it was good enough for the Mannings. Also, I will recommend to our owners that we study the feasibility of extending lifetime health care to all of our players, given our newfound understanding that their injury rate is 100 percent and one-third of them will have to cope with brain disease. They have played the game with self-sacrificing fidelity to their teams. We are determined to show them the same sacrifice and fidelity.”
That would be a commissioner’s address worth attending.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.