No sport outside boxing is as dangerous as the one Goodell oversees as NFL commissioner. But he can continue to say things that are the opposite of true, and never more than about the things that truly matter.
SAN FRANCISCO (Feb 5) —In these troubled times, it can be easy to just throw up your hands and think nothing matters. Look at the list of people running for President, for God’s sake. Look at the Zika virus. ‘Literally’ is a word that now has a dictionary definition which is the precise opposite of its actual meaning, and an emoji of a crying happy face was chosen as Oxford’s word of the year in 2015. If words do not matter, what does?
And so we come to Roger Goodell, as we do every year around this time. On Friday, the commissioner of the National Football League responded to a question about player safety by saying, “Well, the concussion issue is something we’ve been focused on for several decades.” The league only stopped funding and creating junk science around concussions in 2009. That sentence has no functional meaning. ‘Focused.’ The word means nothing.
It can get to you, it really can. When Goodell says, “It always starts, and there is no higher priority, with player safety,” it is meaningless. Similarly, when he says the NFL will “do everything possible we can to support, to try to get the right type of facility long-term” in San Diego and Oakland, the words are empty, because it doesn’t include paying for it. When Goodell says the league values cheerleaders as employees, he doesn’t mention that the Buffalo Bills argued in a wage theft lawsuit that their cheerleaders were not employees. Welcome to the void.
Some of the questions could not have been more planted if you buried them in a pot filled with earth and watered them regularly
Goodell addressed a lot of issues in his 45-minute press conference. Some of the questions could not have been more planted if you buried them in a pot filled with earth and watered them regularly, and some were good, tough questions, like the one Bart Hubbuch of the New York Post asked.
“This past season, seven high school football players died from injuries suffered from injuries in games or practice, three in one week. Do you still feel comfortable encouraging parents of teens and pre-teens to play tackle football through USA Football and Play 60?”
“Any time you have circumstances where there’s loss of life, that’s tragic,” said Goodell. “It’s one of the reasons we’ve invested so aggressively in USA Football and the Heads-Up Football program is to bring the right kind of coaching and techniques to the game at all levels. We have made changes at the NFL level and those changes are going all the way through every level of football. That’s a cultural change. There’s greater awareness of injuries. We’ve seen changes in dehydration, in practices, getting the head out of the game is a very important initiative at all levels.
“From my standpoint, I played the game for nine years through high school. I wouldn’t give up a single game of that. If I had a son, I’d love to have him play the game of football because of the values you get. There’s risk in life. There’s risk in sitting on the couch.”
We are investing in the damage in order to avoid the damage. People made fun of Roger for the couch part, just because he oversees a sport the league itself admitted in a class-action settlement filing could lead to premature neurological diseases in three of 10 players. But the couch part is technically true. There is risk in sitting on a couch. You could fall asleep and start a fire with a lit cigarette. Someone could drive a car into your living room. The universe is full of meteors. You never know.
And we’re not even getting into the health effects of being sedentary. Nothing is more dangerous, in this universe, than being alive.
Of course, there are degrees, and no sport outside boxing is as dangerous as the one Roger Goodell oversees. But he can continue to say things that are the opposite of true, and never more than about the things that truly matter. He’s like a Presidential candidate that way, really: there are people who argue that lying doesn’t matter in politics anymore, if it ever did. The old line about not everyone being entitled to their own facts has been dead for a while.
And that’s where the nihilism creeps in. Roger Goodell can say these things, year after year, and it’s easy to start thinking it doesn’t matter what he says, from concussions toDeflategate. It’s easy to think it doesn’t matter what happens to former players, or how the league treats them, because after everything, despite everything, football had 43 of the top 50 TV sports broadcasts in America last year. Even mocking Goodell can feel pointless.
And then you remember, no, the truth is important, what football does to its players matters. Goodell’s one piece of criticism Friday was about the quality of the Pro Bowl, which is the one game where players don’t have to put themselves in jeopardy. It betrays what’s important, that football without violence isn’t really football. Goodell keeps saying he wants football to be better. If that meant truly taking care of players after they play, and limiting the exposure of children to tackle football, and truly facing research into head injuries, then it would be supportable. Maybe one day, it actually will be.
But when you stare for long into Roger Goodell, the abyss doesn’t gaze back into you. It’s keeping its eye on the ball, which rolls on no matter what anybody says.
*Bruce Arthur is a sports columnist for the Toronto Star, where this article originally appeared.