Preaching the National Football League's commitment to a "culture of change,'' one with greater concern for player safety, commissioner Roger Goodell noted in a speech at the Harvard School of Public Health Thursday that such change "in no uncertain terms . . . is our biggest challenge.''
Addressing an audience of some 200 with a speech titled, "Leadership on the Road to a Safer Game,'' Goodell talked of "changing the culture in a way that reduces the injury risk to the maximum possible extent — especially the risk of head injury.
"We want players to enjoy long and prosperous careers and healthy lives off the field. So we focus relentlessly on player health and safety, while also keeping the game fun and unpredictable.''
Goodell, who succeeded Paul Tagliabue as commissioner in 2006, chose his words carefully, fully aware that upward of 3,900 ex-NFL players and/or their families have signed their names to nearly 180 lawsuits seeking damages for what they claim are football-related head injuries and/or degenerative brain diseases related to their playing days.
"My most important job,'' said Goodell, "is to protect the integrity of the game — but it goes beyond that. It is also to protect the 1,800 professionals who choose to play and who make our game so great.''
Goodell blended the game's history, some of it dating to 19th century beginnings at Harvard, into a 37-minute address in which he noted the league's intention to enact change, while at the same time preserve its entertainment value and robust popularity. He repeatedly mentioned the need for change regarding player health and safety, but time and again brought up the need to proceed with caution.
"I learned a long time ago that you don't do things because they are popular in the short term," said Goodell. "You do them because the are right for the long term. And this is the right conversation to be having.
"My commitment has been and will continue to be to change the culture of football to better protect players without changing the essence of what makes the game so popular. It has been done. And it will be done.''
Following the speech, during which he never mentioned the growing body of litigation surrounding his league, Goodell fielded questions from the audience, many of them Harvard students, for nearly 20 minutes. The questions hit on a number of topics, all related to health and safety, and one focused on last week's NFL action in which three quarterbacks — Alex Smith, Michael Vick, and Jay Cutler — suffered concussions.
Smith reportedly was left with impaired vision after a hit, and apparently could not see straight when he later threw a pass.
"There is no simple answer . . . it's a complex issue,'' said Goodell. "I think it requires a culture change. Because, what I think I said in my remarks is, the [quarterbacks] were taken out when they developed symptoms.
"If they don't tell medical professionals when they are getting symptoms, it's difficult to tell. If we see an impact that we think he's showing symptoms, we'll take him out of the game.
"In addition, we need teammates to be able to say, 'This guy's not right. Something's wrong. He needs to be evaluated. Get him off the field.' ''
Later during the Q&A, Goodell acknowledged that "football is a tough game,'' but also noted that rules and equipment play a vital role in protecting players.
"I don't believe it is winning at all costs,'' he said. "I believe it's winning the right way.''
Goodell also said he doesn't believe NFL teams any longer need to play four exhibition games each season, in part as a health concern, but also as an entertainment issue.
"The preseason doesn't meet the standard of quality that the NFL is all about,'' said Goodell, repeating a point for years made by fans, most of whom object to paying full price for tickets to see a watered-down product. "We don't deliver on that promise in the preseason.''