NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is scheduled to deliver the Dean's distinguished lecture Thursday at the Harvard School of Public Health. The title is "Leadership on the Road to a Safer Game."
After the weekend his league just experienced – seven concussions at a minimum, including two quarterbacks who went back into their games for seven and 12 more plays, respectively – it seems fair to ask whether his hosts at the prestigious program considered finding another speaker.
To be fair, some very smart football people considered that total a sign of progress. Not the concussions, of course, but the fact that they were diagnosed and the players sidelined before any further damage was done. Not surprising, either, was the league's pronouncement that in all three cases it looked into – quarterbacks Jay Cutler of the Bears, Alex Smith of the 49ers and Michael Vick of the Eagles – it was satisfied that the proper protocol was followed. Considering where the NFL finds itself at the moment, as the defendant in more than 100 lawsuits from thousands of former players alleging negligence, fraud and concealment, it also seems fair to ask whether Goodell can be an honest broker.
To his credit, Goodell was on the hot seat less than a year when he pushed the league, which was slow to react to anecdotal reports, to begin making up for lost time. Shamed by the emerging science on concussions, and threatened by mounting threats of legal liability, the NFL organized its first conference on the subject in 2007, bringing in experts from outside the league, instituting mandatory brain baseline testing, standardizing concussion reporting and preventive measures, even announcing a "whistle-blower" hotline so players could anonymously report if they felt pressured to return to the field. Since then, rules have been changed to reduce collisions on kickoffs and outlaw blows to the head, neck and shoulders.
The problem with too many of those solutions is that while they've had a beneficial effect, the responsibility remained largely with the player. Job security is so tenuous that plenty of them still refuse to report symptoms and a few even let on later that they sabotaged their initial baseline test, setting the bar low enough to give them some leeway when tested in the midst of a game after a head-rattling hit. And even when procedures are followed to the letter, there are no guarantees. Before he re-entered Sunday's game against the Rams, Smith was evaluated on the sideline between the first and second quarters. It was only after he threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree that Smith left the game, complaining of blurred vision. Small wonder the NFL Players Association made noise Monday about asking the NFL to put independent concussion specialists, paid for by the league instead of the teams, to determine whether players should be pulled from games.
Goodell can't legislate cooperation from his players; his only power in those matters is coercion. But he also can't claim the mantle of leadership when he's crammed the games closer together, moving one to Thursday night each week to bolster the NFL Network's profitability, since it also shortens the players' recovery time. He's also pushed for an 18-game season, as if the upward or 20,000 or so collisions most NFL players have sustained by the time they reach the pros weren't enough. Almost as troubling is the leadership role Goodell has embraced at the head of an increasingly disingenuous PR campaign aimed not at the players, but squarely at the fans.
Last month, shortly before reports began circulating about a Pop Warner game in Massachusetts that produced five concussions on a team of 10- to 12-year-olds, Goodell turned up at a youth football program in Virginia to promote the NFL's "Heads Up Football" initiative, which purports to teach kids and their coaches tackling skills that would minimize potential head and neck injuries. In a video resulting from a partnership with USA Football – the sport's youth governing body – Goodell says, "You have to have the right fundamentals. You have to learn how to tackle safely and how to play the game safely."
The improving science on concussions has already proven that can't be done, especially the way the game is played in the NFL. One former player watched the video, and reviewed it this way on Slate.com: "As a former head-basher in NCAA football, I can say that this is a technique that I've seen precisely no one, ever, use on the field."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.