This should have been a pleasant week for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. With the Super Bowl approaching on Sunday, the raging debate over football safety should have taken a backseat while the public soaked in the storylines: a coaching battle between two brothers, Ray Lewis’ final game and the athleticism of Colin Kaepernick.
But a PR crisis can hit at any time. Last Sunday, Franklin Foer and Chris Hughes of The New Republic published a frank interview with President Obama that, much to Goodell’s chagrin, touched on violence in football.
The damning quote: “I’m a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football.”
Here we go again. The pistons and cogs of the 24-hour news cycle spun into action. Sensing the need for damage control, Goodell hopped on Reddit on Monday and did an “AMA” (“Ask Me Anything”) session where Reddit users can post unedited questions and receive responses from cultural icons, politicians and even football commissioners.
Only two out of the 14 questions the commissioner answered related to promoting a safer game. One submission was a genuine question relating to the balance between player safety and the integrity of the game. The other was a rather condescending paragraph by Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, who has done great work in the past supporting LGBTQ rights in the football community, but in this case merely wanted to troll Goodell with a question asking about the “dichotomy between making the game safer versus giving the fans the hard hits and satiated bloodlust they so clearly desire.”
Goodell’s answers were not particularly enlightening (his dialogue was ripped from the propaganda ads the league is currently running about the evolution of football), but he also didn’t have much of a choice. The most powerful man in the NFL truly is between a rock and a hard place. Critics and some player-pundits like Kluwe clamor for stricter rules, fewer games and even the elimination of youth football. Yet Kluwe actually falls in the minority of NFL players. A bizarrely honest NFL.com report on Goodell’s 61 percent disapproval rating among players found that his unpopularity stems, in part, from “increased fines for defenseless hits.”
Granted, inconsistent penalties have opened Goodell to allegations of abusing his power and not actually acting in the interest of safety. But arguing over inconsistencies is merely a way for players to hide their disapproval of tougher tackling rules, harsher penalties and “tamer” football. At Super Bowl Media Day earlier this week, Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed said that Junior Seau “signed up for” the potential for injury in the NFL, referring to the former linebacker who had brain damage and committed suicide last year.
What is Goodell to do? There are two extremes. If he makes no effort to improve safety, the game of football will continue to be pelted with reports of traumatic concussions, murder-suicides and debilitating injuries. If Goodell turns the NFL into flag football, players will be incensed and fans will turn away. I’d hate to be in Goodell’s position — hated by players and fans for “ruining football” and hated by critics for, to paraphrase, “profiting off family-friendly bloodsport.” It’s not hard to see how the tug-of-war has resulted in bumbling inaction that fuels the ire of both sides.
But perhaps his weak AMA answers — and that didactic NFL commercial — actually have a point. As he noted on Monday, there were 17 deaths from football in 1905. President Teddy Roosevelt called together the presidents from Yale, Harvard and Princeton to make the game safer. The changes made football what it is today: They eliminated gang tackling, instituted the first and ten and a neutral zone, and added the forward pass.
Could we imagine football any other way? Games have evolved with our changing moral sensibilities, and fans and players have adapted. It will evolve — and must evolve — again. I understand Goodell’s indecision, especially when he’s been pushed back by the exact players he must protect. But he should take his own historical anecdote as evidence that, despite the negative press, football can evolve without being gutted. In fact, adaptation may be the only to save it. I promise it won’t look like the Pro Bowl.
While Obama’s hypothetical son dominated the headlines, his next two sentences might be just the talking point Goodell needs: “And I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence. In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won’t have to examine our consciences quite as much.”
Hopefully Goodell soon feels the same way — a little nostalgic, a little hesitant, but confident about the necessary course of action.