Boston Herald Ron Borges column
NEW ORLEANS, Feb 02, 2013 (Boston Herald - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Roger Goodell is beginning to realize that in the concussive world of pro football it's not always the economy, stupid. At least it's not when it comes to convincing football players to stop hitting each other in the head.
Over the last few years Goodell has responded to the rising tide of concussions and the growing medical evidence connecting them to long-term brain damage with an aggressive assessment of on-field penalties and fines. Neither has convinced a small but lethal group of players to stop repeatedly running headlong into their peers with mayhem on their mind.
While insisting the playing field is a far safer workplace than it was a few years ago, Goodell conceded yesterday that something more might have to be done.
"We have seen an escalation in the discipline because we are trying to take these techniques out of the game," the NFL commissioner said. "I think it was about four years ago at this very press conference, I said, 'We have to take these hits out of the game that we think have a higher risk of causing injuries.' The focus was on defenseless players, and I stand by our record because I think we have made those changes and made the game safer."
What followed those words was perhaps the commissioner's most significant moment in his annual state of the NFL address. It was a thinly veiled threat to players who continue to ignore the fact that there's a new sheriff in town and a new way of playing football.
Things are going to change, he said, if the kind of hit Bernard Pollard put on Wes Welker in the AFC Championship Game doesn't stop, and the change is going to be that guys like Pollard end up on their sofas on Sunday.
"I think we're going to have to continue to see discipline escalate, particularly on repeat offenders," Goodell said. "It's not just . . . the defenseless player, that's being protected; it's the person doing the striking. We see in the injury rates that the defenseless player and the defensive back are having a higher injury rate.
"Taking these hits out of the game can be positive. The most effective way of doing that, and I'm not for it because we want to see all of our players on the field, is when they are repeat offenders and they are involved with these dangerous techniques, that we're going to have to take them off the field.
"Suspension gets through to them . . . We want to see them on the field (but) we're going to continue to emphasize the importance of following those rules. When there are violations, we will escalate the discipline."
Former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy long ago suggested that was the only way to truly alter how the game is played, because while every coach from Pop Warner to the Super Bowl talks about being physical, none wants to enter a game with their best defensive players in street clothes.
Goodell's threat comes on the heels of a recent USA Today survey that declared the league's players have grown not only unhappy with his enhanced fines but question his fairness in applying them. Pollard went so far as to suggest NFL football might become irrelevant in 30 years if the league continues to press for reduced violence because violence is at the game's core.
Perhaps, but Goodell made clear that regardless of what players think, unloading on defenseless opponents is going to stop even if the only way to do it is to stop the perpetrators from playing.
Goodell's picture has been splattered in restaurants all over New Orleans this week next to signs that read "Do NOT Serve This Man," a reaction to the stiff penalties he levied on the Saints for their alleged bounty program. Although the suspensions and fines on a number of Saints players were later overturned by former commissioner Paul Tagliabue in his role as arbiter, Goodell remained unwavering in his insistence that the culture of the NFL was going to change under his watch.
"There's no question there was a bounty program in place for three years," Goodell said of the Saints' situation. "I think that that is bad for the players, for the game, and I think the message is incredibly clear, and I don't believe that bounties will be part of football going forward. That's good for everybody. I think my biggest regret is that we aren't all recognizing that this is a collective responsibility to get them out of the game to make the game safer. . . . That's what I regret, that I wasn't able to make that point clearly enough with the union, and with others but that is something we are going to be incredibly relentless on.
"I believe we're all responsible for what goes on in our locker rooms, on the field, as part of our game. That's a collective responsibility. We're not going to hide from that."
More importantly, it seems, players who refuse to understand that are going to not just be fined. They're going to disappear.
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