His words are soft, methodical, almost wobbly at times. Nothing at all is presidential about Roger Goodell, whose father happened to be a congressman, one who admirably was railroaded when he fought to end the Vietnam War and incurred Richard Nixon’s wrath. You wish Charles Goodell’s son would take similar rabble-rousing stances against brain trauma, gambling and the NFL’s other ills.
But the commissioner is far less a politician than he is a servant, a bulletproof vest for 32 team owners who gladly let him absorb the slings and arrows of harsh critics who find fault every day — and rightfully so — with the modus operandi of a $14-billion-a-year enterprise. If the best way to curry the favor of outraged fans and media is to fire Goodell, there is no chance of that.
He is making the owners more money than they ever dreamed.
And he has successfully blocked them from all but a drizzle of the relentless thunderstorms, willing to absorb the abuse himself.
Though he would cause red lights to flash and alarms to sound on any b.s. detector, Goodell spent his Friday press conference at Moscone Center West defusing the league’s crises and somehow trying to convince the masses that all’s well in a troubled league. In an approach that would appall anyone with proper life perspective, much less anyone who has had a son die or lose his quality of life playing football, Goodell acted like a defense attorney. He spent a few seconds acknowledging a problem — “There is no higher priority than player safety,” he said, reading a prepared statement — then devoted substantial chunks of time extolling the virtues of football. How many of the 91 brains of football players, as tested by Boston University neurologists, contained the brain disease CTE?
Eighty-seven, to be exact, in players who played every position on the field but kicker.
“From my standpoint, I played the game of football for nine years, through high school. I wouldn’t give up a single day of that. If I had a son, I’d love to have him play the game of football,” said Goodell, a father of two daughters. “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 sitting on the couch. What we want to do is get people active. I want them to experience the game of football because the game of football will teach you the values … the discipline, the teamwork, the perseverance. Those are values and those are skills that will lead you through life, and I believe football is the best to teach that.”
There’s risk sitting on the couch? Other than a couch in a house on top of a train track, how possibly could he draw that parallel? That’s as irresponsible as when Goodell laughed at a bad joke by Hall of Famer Roger Staubach about concussions. “We learn more from science,” he rambled on. “We learn more by our own experience and we have made great progress. We continue to make rule changes to our game to make the game safer and protect our players from unnecessary injury, from acts that we see can lead to increased probability of an injury.
“We’ve also made tremendous improvements with equipment. There’s technology that’s coming in. There’ll be a new helmet coming out this season which, I think, is going to be a very positive step in trying to get better protection. [There is] new technology that goes under artificial turf, which will take out the impact. We’ve had a large number of concussions that occur from just the head on the turf. We’ve seen the benefits of that. We’ve seen the positive changes.”
Oh, such as the 58 percent increase in regular-season concussions in 2015. The NFL credits better detection procedures and smarter self-reporting by players, but a reporter countered with another irrefutable fact: All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson became the latest standout player to mull retirement in his prime, potentially leaving millions on the table and joining the likes of 49ers linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Borland last offseason. What is the message when young players are walking away?
Bulletproof Vest didn’t like that question.
“I disagree with the premise, to start with,” Goodell said. “You’re taking those issues and you’re combining them. I think each individual player makes his own individual decision about how long they play the game, who they play for, under what conditions they play. Those are individual decisions that we respect, and they’re made for different reasons. We will continue to support our players, we’ll continue to help them in those decision-making processes, but I don’t see so many people walking away from the game. I don’t agree with that. I see great athletes playing this game and loving to play this game. I talk to players all the time. They say, ‘I hope I can play forever.’ They can’t. That’s not possible. These guys love this game, they’re passionate about this game, and if you lose that passion, maybe it is time to move on.”
He missed the point. So many players are losing passion because they’re scared, because they want good, long lives and, at age 40, don’t want to forget what they said five seconds earlier. And what about the kids who are dying? This past season, seven high school football players died from injuries suffered in games or practices, three in one week. How can Goodell feel secure in urging kids to keep playing?
“Listen, any time you have circumstances where there’s loss of life, that’s tragic,” he said, still defending, still hustling. “It’s one of the reasons why we’ve invested so aggressively in USA Football and our Heads Up Football program, to bring the right kind of coaching and techniques 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 the way practices occur on all levels of football. Getting the head out of the game is a very important initiative at all levels.”
But as seen in two sequences late in the regular season — involving young stars Odell Beckham Jr. and Vontaze Burfict, violently targeting the heads of opponents — not everyone is listening to the commissioner. As he tries so hard to emphasize the positives, isn’t Goodell in denial?
“We look forward to the great game on Sunday. Sunday will close another season of competitive excellence,” he said. “We had a record number of close games and so many wonderful, exciting comebacks. The credit goes to the coaches and the players and the staffs of all 32 teams. They present the quality competition that keeps the fans on the edge of their seats.”
Actually, I remember a fairly boring regular season.
“We will continue to focus on innovation and expand fan interest,” he said. “Reaching the largest possible audience is fundamental to our success and that will not change. Technology provides us with capabilities to go direct to our fans, technology that we didn’t have before. We can do it on all platforms.”
Money, money, money. Print that money.
And the Raiders? In one breath, he said he wants Davis to keep the Raiders in Oakland. In another breath, he speaks of how their Nov. 21 regular-season game in Mexico City against Houston could represent a new beginning. “Mark Davis has lots of options,” he said. “As you know, we have a tremendous fan following down in Mexico. We believe it’ll be a tremendous success and we’re excited about being there.”
Then there was the teenaged girl, playing in a tackle football league right now, who asked if she could try out for the NFL someday. Roger Goodell smiled, said yes, then played more Spin City next door to Super Bowl City.
“The values that you get from playing sports, what you learn about yourself, what you learn about interacting with others, about teamwork, about discipline, about getting knocked down and being able to pick yourself up, about perseverance — those are values that are going to take you well beyond sports,” he said. “Whether you become a professional athlete or not, I believe those values will help you in life, and I rely on them every day in my job. I think you’ll rely on the same kind of values. So I’m glad you’re playing football, but I’m also glad you’re getting those values that will help you no matter what your career.”
The public at-large ponders brain disease, compulsive gambling, criminality.
Bulletproof Vest ponders values.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.