Recently, reports have surfaced that the NFL has spent more than a decade trying to discredit evidence from experts that says playing football leads to brain damage later in life. An ESPN Outside the Lines article by Don Van Natta Jr. details the information laid out in a new book written by ESPN investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. The report specifies a large number of events that date back to Paul Tagliabue’s time as the commissioner of the NFL and clearly shows the effort that the NFL has put into its mission to not let the public know about the dangers of playing football.
What I find odd about the report is how the incidents continue well into Roger Goodell’s tenure as commissioner. Goodell has stood by a platform of player safety throughout his time as commissioner. He has largely taken bone-crushing hits on receivers out of the game by instituting rules that make hits on defenseless receivers a 15-yard penalty and a large fine for the hitting player. Goodell has also instituted rules that make it more difficult for concussed players to return to the game; they now have to be deemed healthy by an independent doctor. All these new policies were supposed to be driven toward promoting player safety – so why, then, would Goodell also try to discredit reports about player safety?
The answer is money. It’s quite obvious that if these reports about player brain damage surfaced publicly, it would be a terrible public relations hit for the NFL.
If confirmed, these reports would cause the NFL to lose many sponsorships and viewers. It’s clear why Goodell would try to discredit them. It’s a similar deal with the news on the field rules that Goodell has instituted. Outlawing bone-crushing hits on wide receivers looks good publicly. While I’m sure NFL fans complain about the lack of hits, no one is turning off his television because he can’t see James Harrison take a small slot-receiver’s head off. PR-wise, though, these rules bring a more humane side to football that may attract some more casual viewers to the game because it’s not as sadistic as they thought.
It’s all about the money for Goodell. We can even look at his fight for an 18-game schedule in the NFL as proof. Goodell – the saint who supposedly was looking out for player safety – has wanted to expand the NFL season by two games over the past few years. He knows very well about the data and about how many more injuries would be caused by playing another two games. He and his executives only see their lucrative television deals becoming even more outrageous if two more games are added to the NFL slate.
The issue, though, is that Goodell has won. He knows he’s won. The NFL has become such a staple in our society that this report about the NFL discrediting scientists can’t possibly “taint” the game and drive viewers away from the NFL. America has an inelastic demand for the NFL, and Goodell knows this. That’s why he was willing to put up with replacement referees for three weeks last year. He knew that no matter how bad the quality of refereeing was, no one would stop watching football, and this is why Goodell was willing to risk hurting the NFL’s name in order to try to stop the reports from coming out. The NFL can’t lose.
I’m not sure that there is much that can be done about the NFL and Goodell. Any amount of a fine that the government thinks it can give to the NFL will seem like chump change. In all honesty, the only way the NFL is somehow affected by this is if the government steps in and mandates certain player safety rules in the NFL, rather than the NFL coming up with its own rules in order to help out on the PR front. Do I see that happening? No. This information can’t touch the NFL, a multimillion-dollar business that is only becoming more and more valuable each day. It’s Roger Goodell’s world and we’re just living in it.
Contact David Josselsohn at [email protected]