BOSTON — NFL football commissioner Roger Goodell has his share of critics, as the league faces lawsuits involving thousands of former players claiming the NFL ignored the long-term health consequences of repetitive head trauma.
At his lecture at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston on Thursday, entitled “Leadership on the Road to a Safer Game,” Goodell said leadership “means listening and learning from people, including your critics or those who may be telling you what you don’t want to hear.”
Goodell became commissioner in 2006, when the league was accused of being in denial for decades on the effects that repeated hits to the head had on football players. The NFL was even likened to the tobacco industry during a 2009 congressional hearing for allegedly concealing the health risks associated with repetitive head injuries and turning a blind eye to the risks players faced of developing long-term brain damage as a result.
In May, the suicide of former New England Patriots linebacker Junior Seau brought the issue of retired NFL players’ mental health back into the spotlight. It is unknown if there was any kind of link between Seau’s death and a brain-related injury, but many people speculated that repeated concussions Seau may have suffered over his 20-season career in the NFL may have contributed to his suicide.
Goodell responded to this kind of speculation, stating “we need to be driven by facts and data, not perceptions and suppositions.”
However, Goodell did emphasize the need to devote “more resources to the well-being of players as they transition away from the game, including their mental health.”
According to Goodell, football’s biggest challenge is how to change the culture of football to reduce the injury risk to players, especially the risk of head injury.
“My most important job is to protect the integrity of the game – but it goes beyond that,” he said. “It is also to protect the 1,800 professionals who choose to play and who make our game so great.”
Goodell highlighted some of the changes that have been made in the game to promote a culture of safety, such as enforcing rules on illegal hits to the head with fines and suspensions, and moving the kickoff line five yards forward to reduce the risk of concussions on kickoff.
The issue of concussions has put the game of football at a crossroads, according to Goodell.
“If we are at another crossroads, we have already taken the right path,” he said. “We took it a long time ago, and our commitment to stay on it will not waver.”