Roger Goodell, the National Football League commissioner who spoke for an hour and change at 92nd Street Y Monday night, is undoubtedly “in the lead”: The league is, as he noted, more popular than it has ever been; professional football is the most popular sport in the United States by virtually any metric you’d care to choose. But the NFL is also undeniably facing a long-term, possibly existential threat, which stems from the growing realization that playing football is intrinsically hazardous to one’s health. In the coming years, there will likely be decreased fan tolerance of the sport for that reason; a degrading of the gameplay due to rule changes designed, perhaps futilely, to make the sport safer; and a dwindling of talented players as parents refuse to let their kids step onto the gridiron.
Faced with all of this, Goodell’s typical response—and this was in evidence Monday night, just several miles from the stadium in northern New Jersey where the Super Bowl will be played in a month—is to put on a happy face, keep the status quo going, and assume eternal victory. He should talk to most football fans. They would tell him to respond with urgency, creativity, and aggressiveness. They would recite the cliché, which refers to playing conservatively when you are ahead late in the game: “The only thing the prevent defense prevents is a win.”
Goodell’s false-note optimism was most in evidence, of course, when moderator Ben Feller—formerly the Associated Press White House correspondent, now ensconced in a snazzy P.R. firm—brought up the issue of concussions, including the accusation, most prominently leveled last year in a book and a documentary entitled League of Denial, that the league knowingly covered up knowledge about the relationship between playing football and lasting brain damage. (If Feller asked Goodell about the report that Goodell pressured ESPN to discontinue its cooperation with the documentary, I missed it.)
“Do you agree” that the concussions issue “is an existential threat to professional football?” Feller asked, accurately describing League of Denial as reporting that “your product, when done as intended, can cause lasting damage.”
“No,” Goodell replied, one of several times he began an answer with a simple declarative “yes” or “no.” Then somewhat inappositely, he added: “We want our players to be healthy both during their careers and after their careers.”
In fact, concussions do not result from playing football “as intended,” Goodell claimed. “Using the head is not the way it’s designed to be played,” he said. “The helmet is there for protection, not for a weapon.” This strains credulity, to put it mildly: After all, we have reason to believe that repeated sub-concussive trauma, caused among other things by routine collisions between offensive and defensive linemen on nearly every play, can also lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the brain ailment which afflicted several former NFL players.
Incredibly, Goodell shifted the conversation to hockey. “Concussions are an issue in all sports,” he remarked. “I’m a big believer in sports.”
As to League of Denial’s charge of a cover-up? “Absolutely not. In fact, the NFL has been leaders in this area.” Um … I would encourage readers to watch League of Denial. Or at least read about how an apparently under-qualified rheumatologist employed by the NFL determined much of the league’s response to the burgeoning crisis.
But Goodell’s whistling of dixie was not confined to head-trauma issues. To stay on-topic (of whistling dixie, that is): he said that the name of the Washington football team (which it is this magazine’s policy not to print) was not a big problem. “We have to listen. We are doing that,” he said. “If you start with the facts, the latest poll from Native Americans is, nine out of ten don’t think it’s offensive. From the general population, I’ve never seen it be less than eight out of ten.” But isn’t the name itself racist, no matter what people think? “The name is the name of a football team. It has had an 80-year tradition. It’s always presented in a positive light.” Here I could not help but laugh: Not only at the almost Borgesian logic (the name of the team only refers back to itself!) but at the notion that Washington’s football team is “always presented in a positive light.” He thinks 3-13 is “positive”?
Some other highlights:
-On the settlement of the concussions-related class action, new details of which were revealed Monday: Goodell was not asked about this.
-On the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin bullying/racism scandal: “Anyone in the NFL or any workplace environment has the right to have an environment where they can show up and work. … I think you could make a strong argument that in the NFL we are the most significant—you play based on performance, if you’re a good player.” Er, tell that to Chris Kluwe!
-On former punter Chris Kluwe’s recent allegation that the Minnesota Vikings tried to stifle his pro-gay marriage advocacy: Goodell was not asked about this.
-“Is the NFL ready for an openly gay football player?” “Yes.”
-On politics: The only politician Goodell, whose father was a Republican senator who opposed the Vietnam War, mentioned was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Apparently at last year’s Super Bowl, when the famous blackout occurred, Christie, in Goodell’s box, immediately made a call, and then told Goodell, “I was calling my guy in New Jersey. This isn’t happening next year, I promise.” Tough-guy ethic, blue-collar-seeming, rabidly anti-union, overweight: Is there any better human embodiment of the NFL than Chris Christie?
-On the first-ever cold-weather Super Bowl: “When you think about tonight’s weather, and an open-air game in the heart of winter, is there anything nutty about what’s about to happen?” Feller asked. “No,” Goodell said. “I think it’s what football’s all about.” I’ll throw Goodell a bone here: He’s completely right!
-On adding a wild card to each conference, as Dan Patrick first reported was being discussed: Some news here, maybe? That proposal is “under serious consideration,” Goodell said, though of course it is up to the owners. In its defense, Goodell noted of the final week of this past season, “13 of those 16 games had playoff implications. That’s extraordinary, and we want to keep that. If we could increase that, that’s compelling.” But, according to Goodell, the NFL would deal with having seven playoff teams per conference by reducing the number of first-round byes from two to one, which could make a few Week 17 games less relevant. Goodell was not asked about this.
-On having a London franchise eventually: He’s in favor.
-On whether he thinks—as many suggest, and as a plain look at injury-recovery speeds implies—that the use of illicit performance-enhancing substances is higher than is publicly known: Goodell was not asked about this.
The event was by no means full: this auditorium was much more crowded, in my experience, when Dick Cavett chatted with Woody Allen. There were many reporters—NFL spokesperson Greg Aiello kibitzed with several beforehand—and, as if to remind us that we were at the uptown Y, a lady in a big fur coat. Goodell wore his own uniform, his own “shield,” to use his favorite word for the NFL logo: navy suit, blue shirt, conservative striped tie. At one point, he mentioned that the NFL is working with the U.S. military, exchanging information on dealing with head trauma. “Changing the culture of the military is not much different—the player wanting to go back on the field is not much different than the soldier wanting to go back on the battlefield,” he said. The NFL famously has a military-style culture. But we are now at the point where the commissioner is proud that there is barely any difference. My God.