By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The NFL should be embarrassed for how they handled Cam Newton’s brutal night in last Thursday’s season opener between the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos, but they’re not. Commissioner Roger Goodell, however, is pretending to be.
The issue isn’t necessarily that Newton wasn’t taken off the field to go through the concussion protocol. It’s that the league ultimately left him on the field to get bombarded by Broncos cheap shots, while simultaneously purporting to care more about player safety than keeping their marquee player on TV screens. As much progress as the league has made in recent years to improve in this area, player safety is simply not their highest priority, even though they would tell you that it is.
The charade continued on Wednesday, as Goodell released an open letter titled “A Commitment To Player Health And Safety,” the meat of which announced a new initiative from the league called “Play Smart. Play Safe.”
Never mind the obviously curious timing, with this whole thing coming out in the wake of such a strong response to the league and its officials’ poor handling of Newton and the Broncos in that game. The letter is filled with passages that are at best disingenuous, and at worst horribly spurious and misleading when it comes to their “commitment” to player safety.
So let’s get started with some of those!
“We’ve made important progress in health and safety. We’ve made safety-related rules changes, encouraged advancements in equipment, improved medical protocols and care and changed the way we teach the game.”
‘Improved medical protocols.’ Unless it’s a star player in a two-minute drill, of course. Or Case Keenum.
“The NFL has been a leader on health and safety in many ways, and we’ve made some real strides in recent years. But when it comes to addressing head injuries in our game, I’m not satisfied, and neither are the owners of the NFL’s 32 clubs. We can and will do better.”
Believe that when I see it, Rog.
“Moving forward, our foremost priority will be to continually raise our standards and then surpass them.”
Yet another “priority” from the NFL league office! And this one is so vague that they can’t really be called on it. They should be expected to continually improve.
“Our primary interest is in keeping our players and the public informed about these important health issues. As we gain new insights or discover new challenges, we will share them, so you will know them as well.”
This part came amid Goodell’s announcement of the league’s new initiative “Play Smart. Play Safe.”, which immediately sounds like it was extracted directly from Goodell’s PR & marketing playbook. The initiative is led by a pledge of $100 million devoted to “independent medical research and engineering advancements.” It sounds like a lot of money, but the $100 million is ultimately less than one percent of the league’s projected 2016 revenue of about $13 billion.
Goodell should be held to his promise of sharing all those “new insights” with the public, by the way, so he doesn’t get to pull the same thing he did with those PSI measurements. Not that we’re not already aware of a lot of the things they may end up sharing or that we’ll trust their findings, anyway. So we’re good there, Mr. Commish.
Part of the new initiative involves the establishment of “an independent, scientific advisory board comprising leading doctors, scientists and clinicians to engage in a clear process to identify and support the most compelling proposals for scientific research into concussions, head injuries and their long-term effects.” Which is all good, except it doesn’t exactly sound like the league has actually made any of that “progress” Goodell speaks of if last Thursday night happens and they’re still establishing committees.
The next sentence … oh my, the next sentence. … “This is an example of how we will let science lead the way.”
I can think of another time where they could have paid more attention to sci- … Never mind. I’ve already said too much. Not going there again, I promise.
But wait …
“We know there is skepticism about our work in this area. That’s why both the process and the results of our work will be shared with the medical community and the public at large.”
The Goodell-Bot … is it … learning?
As if the letter wasn’t already slathered in PR sludge, the new initiative was then separated into the “four pillars” … That would be “Protecting Players,” “Advanced Technology,” “Medical Research,” and “Sharing Progress.”
‘Guys, we care about this, I SWEAR!’
The whole “Protecting Players” section goes into great detail about what the league has done and continues to do to inform players of the risks involved with head injuries and, well, football in general. It’s true that players have to be somewhat accountable for this and perhaps some Broncos players still have things to learn. But much of the section sounds too much like Goodell (and, by extension, the league owners) are passing blame to the very medical professionals and players they employ – as if, you know, the league are the ones who really care about their safety. No, no, it’s the PLAYERS who are wrong!
“Earlier this summer, together with the NFLPA, we announced a policy to enforce our concussion protocol. We have worked hard to educate our teams and our players on the importance of following the protocol. But this latest agreement makes clear that there will be serious consequences for any team that fails to follow those best practices.”
‘Importance of following the protocol.’ Surely the league is just furious that Derek Anderson didn’t get any snaps for the Panthers.
“Another area of focus is working with the NFLPA to better educate our players on health and safety matters. From making more informed equipment decisions to increasing player knowledge about how to prevent, identify and treat injuries, we are constantly providing our players the best available information to protect themselves.”
Yeah Cam, why couldn’t you just PROTECT YOURSELF from Brandon Marshall’s helmet-cannon?
The “Advanced Technology” section details the $60 million allotted to working toward “new developments in engineering, biomechanics, advanced sensors and material science that mitigate forces and better prevent against injuries in contact sports and recreational sports and for our military.” Dammit Goodell, you just HAD to throw the military in there, didn’t you? Well now I feel bad.
Admittedly, there are good things in here. Better helmets is hardly a bad idea, but it’s also a concern that players find themselves invincible while wearing them and some feel the need to turn their own heads into wrecking balls. There’s a potential “major breakthrough” with blood tests to determine concussions, but it’s just hard to believe that the NFL would be the leaders in developing this advancement and using it for the betterment of player safety.
The other $40 million in the $100 million pledge will be allotted for medical research to “advance progress in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of head injuries.” Yes, there still needs to be a lot more research done on head injuries since it’s currently impossible to diagnose the degenerative brain disorder C.T.E. in living patients, let alone forge a tangible connection between the disease and effects of playing football. But to completely dismiss the research being done is to fly in the face of common sense, so it’s good that there will be more resources devoted to learning more and developing new medical advancements.
It just shouldn’t be the NFL leading the discussion, because they’ve already proven that player safety is far from their top priority.
Goodell’s letter concludes with a bit of his own personal story about his football experience in high school – which is the part of the letter when you’ll need to have an empty bucket by your side …
“The values I gained from that experience — grit, commitment to team, hard work and how to conduct oneself in both victory and defeat — are values I’ve applied throughout my adult life.”
The letter concludes that the “Play Smart. Play Safe.” initiative “comes down to one overriding priority: the health, safety and well-being of every player.” Except that’s not true, because Newton would have come off the field Thursday night if that were the case.
Look, no one wanted Cam Newton off the field in that game. He didn’t, his teammates didn’t, his coaches didn’t, the TV viewers didn’t, and the NFL sure as hell didn’t. It just proved that player safety, in fact, is NOT the top priority for the league. You may find it insensitive to say that having the star player on the field at the end of the game was more important than said player’s long-term health, but it’s the reality of this league and its highly addictive, endlessly profitable product. Yet the league continues to pretend to care about the health of players more than the health of ratings or revenue.
We may be able to survive this with our sanity intact if the league stopped this act altogether.
This latest program instituted by the NFL – which, admittedly, does have some good initiatives attached to it – may ultimately improve player safety in some respects, but it won’t happen because the league is primarily concerned about their players’ health. It’s because they don’t want another lawsuit. They don’t want another billion-dollar settlement. They want active players to be as informed as possible so they can avoid further litigation by saying, “Well, you knew the risks …”
For football as we know it to survive, it’s going to need some admission of its violence and barbarism. I don’t want the NFL to become flag football any more than you do. Quarterbacks and ball carriers are inevitably going to take shots to the head. Cheap shots will happen and have no place in the game, but they will never be 100 percent prevented. Players should be more understanding of the risks involved with football, and will be. But they won’t become so well-informed because the league genuinely cares about their health. They’ll be more informed so they can be held liable for what happens to their own brains.
Goodell’s letter of “commitment” sure reads like he actually cares about players’ brains getting scrambled, but it has and always will be more about the health of “The Shield.” As positive as some of the developments may be from the league’s newest initiative, it carries too much of Goodell’s unmistakably fraudulent PR-speak to be taken as seriously as it wants to be.
If Goodell really wants you to believe that he or the league truly cares about the health and safety of his players, he should prove it. He doesn’t and he won’t, but if he wants to be seen as anything less than a clown-show, he should. He hasn’t truly done that yet and this doctor’s office pamphlet he calls a “letter” certainly won’t.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.