Goodell is put on the hot seat

In the midst of last week’s Favrefest, there was an important congressional hearing about a topic that has become front and center. With Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith giving testimony, Congress focused on an issue that is vitally important to the health and safety of football players: head injuries and the brain.

The head injury hearings

The House Judiciary Committee convened to discuss head injuries and their connection -- or lack thereof -- to brain disease later in life. The hearings were spurred by, among other things, a study conducted at the behest of the NFL that reported a higher prevalence of dementia and brain disease among former NFL players than the general population. Although the study was conducted by the University of Michigan and reported by the New York Times, the league dismissed some of the methodology used to reach the findings but acknowledged the issue needs increased scrutiny. The hearings gave the issue just that.

The hearings put Goodell in a rare defensive posture, although there were no questions he could not have reasonably expected and prepared for. The problem for the commissioner was that he had nowhere to turn in this debate.

Goodell is in a tough spot: If he acknowledged a connection between playing professional football and brain disease later in life, he would be on record as admitting that the sport he presides over is harmful to its players’ future brain function. He would forever be on the defensive about what steps were being taken on the field -- equipment, rules changes, increased testing -- and whether they were satisfactory to stem this serious problem.

In the alternative, if Goodell denied any connection between playing football and brain disease, he would be disputing some of the findings of past and current medical research, including the most recent study commissioned under his watch.

Goodell denied the connection, which frustrated an aggressive audience that was both appealing to a popular cause during election week and playing to a media following due to the witness list.

Upon Goodell’s refusal to acknowledge a causal link, representatives John Conyers (D-Mich.), Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), among others, pounced on the opportunity to grill the NFL commissioner. Waters, frustrated with the lack of specificity about what the league is doing, was especially pointed, saying: “We've heard from the NFL time and time again -- you're always ‘studying,’ you're always ‘trying,’ you're ‘hopeful.’ I want to know what are you deal with this problem and other problems related to injuries?”

A losing PR battle

This was an awkward position for the commissioner to be in since the public relations angle on this issue is one the NFL cannot win. The committee, the media and the public are looking at, on one side, an $8 billion business that is still thriving in spite of the economic downturn, and on the other side, a group of people who sacrificed for the good of the league, featuring elderly former players who may be physically and mentally frail while at the same time facing financial challenges. The league can’t win this battle, no matter what the spin.

Case in point: One of the former players present at the hearing was a former Packers star Willie Wood. Wood and I connected, as we both are natives of Washington D.C., and I helped him navigate around Lambeau Field during a couple of his visits. He’s in a wheelchair and needs constant care -- a figure for Congress, the public and the media to empathize with.

The hearing also featured the father of a 17-year-old from Austin, Texas, who died after a helmet-to-helmet hit. Unlike the accusatory tone taken with Goodell, these witnesses were treated with respect, sympathy and concern by the committee.

The commissioner of the most successful sports league in the country is not often placed on the defensive with little support in the room. That happened last week in Washington. The NFL is going to have to be very tactful with this public relations issue.

What can be done

The issue will bubble to the surface again with the next violent concussion in the NFL, which will inevitably occur. Football is not a contact sport; it’s a collision sport. However, to lay the blame for brain injuries later in life at the feet of the NFL is unfair. These players have been playing contact football since age eight; their NFL careers represent a small slice of that time.

As I’ve written here, the first step for NFL teams is to allow team medical personnel to be completely empowered about head injuries and given total control over when or if a player plays without interference from management.

Interestingly, the witness who was most vocal about the need for team doctors to be more independent, instead of influenced by coaches and management to sacrifice the long-term interests of the player, was a former president of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Gay Culverhouse. I’m not sure what went on in Tampa, but I did not see that in Green Bay.

What, then, will be the upshot of these hearings? Both Goodell and Smith, who was forthright that the NFLPA “has not done its best in this area,” agreed to turn over medical records of players to the committee. From there, we assume, there will be inquiry into congressional action, something the NFL will resist.

The NFL needs to continue to tactfully showcase the advances it has made -- baseline testing for many teams, the 88 plan (named after former NFLPA president John Mackey) to assist former players suffering from dementia-related illness, rules changes, improved equipment, empowerment of team medical personnel or even independent medical personnel, etc. -- in the face of this issue that will likely not go away any time soon.

Education and empowerment are the keys to improvement.

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