Goodell focused on helping players during and after their careers
Roger Goodell says he's spent most of his time this offseason on player safety
Expect Darrelle Revis to not show up for the start of camp, Jets to play hardball
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EMIGRANT, Mont. -- Now there's a dateline I never thought I'd use: Emigrant, Mont. I came here Thursday at the invitation of Atlanta owner Arthur Blank to moderate a couple of football discussions for Falcons clients and suite-holders at Blank's Mountain Sky Guest Ranch. Now I know why the Spielberg family comes here for a week a year. No TV. No computers. I forded a creek on a horse Friday. ("Forded.'' Always loved that word. Never thought I'd actually do it.)
One of those discussions was with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. And on Friday morning just after 6, we sat on the porch of the main house to discuss the news of the day.
Me: What's been your focus in the wake of Junior Seau's death about what to do with NFL programs for players post-career?
Goodell: "Our focus has been on the total health of our players. We have programs from the time they enter the league, programs while you're in the league, and over the last year or two. Now [director of player engagement] Troy Vincent has been creating programs helping them transition out of the game. It's much more difficult for these individuals than we might think. Talking to the players and talking to professionals, that transition needs some focus in how we provide them the resources. It's not just their physical health, like cardiovascular screening and joint replacements, it's expanding of the mental health resources. How do we help identify somebody that may need help, get that help to them and what are the resources that he has? ... There's still that stigma that mental health is a weakness. It's not. Depression, anxiety, these are very common and can be dealt with in a variety of different fashions. Some with medicine, some with counseling, some with other forms of assistance. When they're not dealt with, they have a tendency to spiral and to become much more complicated.''
Me: London Fletcher told me mental health counseling for players post-career should be mandatory.
Goodell: "Well, at least an evaluation. That's something that's being discussed as a part of your exit physical. Part of that is mental health evaluation to see what it can be. I've heard that from players myself. And we are evaluating it.
Me: What's the most disturbing thing, to you, about Seau's death?
Goodell: "The most disturbing thing is the tragedy itself. That a young man that was so successful and had so much good to learn and had so much promise made the decision to end his life. All we want to do is make sure that we're doing everything we can to prevent another tragedy, to have the resources available to our players and to recognize in talking to the VA, to the National Institutes of Health, that professionals in this area that we've spent a great deal of time talking to say that there's two sides to a very complex issue that involves multiple factors. Speaking with all the professionals, that support system and that structure and the loss of those two factors is very powerful. I hear it from the professionals and I hear it from the players. Some of the players that you and I both know that I respect a lot. I see it in their eyes a little bit -- not having their team, which they consider their family in some ways, and that constant support system and seeing the other guys motivate the other guys. Losing that is a really difficult challenge. Then the structure. As you know, these players are given a very specific structure. 'This is the schedule for tomorrow. This is the schedule for Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.' That's gone all of a sudden. I had a couple of players tell me, 'It's Monday morning and next thing I know it's Friday. Nobody was structuring my life.' Those are all contributing factors to just that transition and what do I do, how do I do that, how do I get myself motivated and moving. When they're not dealt with effectively, that's what makes people spiral downward. You feel less about yourself. I'm not an expert, so I don't want be saying on the record that leads to depression or could lead to depression. It's really that spiral effect that we keep talking about.
Goodell spoke of a relatively new peer-to-peer counseling program, the Ambassador Program, which pairs former players with current ones, discussing preparing for retirement and being available for players after they retire. He said the number of Ambassadors is up to about 50 now.
Goodell: "The reason we think this is so important is peer-to-peer is important because if you've been through it that's usually a big help ... We're focusing on that assistance, so when they [recently retired players] feel that kind of hopelessness or desperation, they have a place to come ... If somebody wants it to be anonymous, we have that option as well. [Eventually] depending on where it goes, the counseling may go completely out of the system. They might be going to a professional that has nothing to do with the NFL, which is the way it should be. That's OK ... One of our biggest challenges is to get the players [to come forward to be able] to teach them.
Goodell: "We've had mental health forums where they could come with their spouses and they could hear different things and different challenges that you might have. What to look for, how do deal with it, how to manage it. Very few players showed up. It's the same old thing. We have a lot of individuals that have tremendous pride and they're not always going to raise their hand and say, 'I may need help.' But we all need help. And we all need assistance.''
Me: Your thoughts on the master complaint from more than 2,100 players claiming the league did too little about head trauma and concussions ... Do you think this endangers the NFL as we know it?
Goodell: "Our lawyers are going to focus on that. We obviously feel very strongly that the complaint is not accurate. We have long made player safety a priority. We have made the game safer and the other games safer. We will vigorously defend litigation and the lawyers will do that in the courtroom. In the meantime, we're going to keep focusing on what do we keep doing to make the game safer and the rule changes and the equipment changes and investing in pioneering research that we think could make significant strides in better understanding of the brain.''
Goodell said he has spent more time this offseason on player safety than on any other issue -- more time, he told me, than on the Saints' bounty program. He also pointed to the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health study that said former NFL players lived a longer life than average male citizens as bursting a myth that the life span of football players is shortened by the game.
Me: What have you learned, let's say, since the end of the season that's contributed to your continuing education on head trauma and concussions?
Goodell: "The head, neck, and spine committee met back in early- to mid-February. I think we had 48 professionals in that room, leading doctors and scientists from institutions all over the world, virtually all of them unaffiliated with the NFL. I think the thing that strikes me the most about it is how much more we have to learn as a society, as a medical profession, as scientists. There's still a lot of unknowns about the brain, either brain disease or brain trauma and how it reacts. That's not unusual in science and medicine as you know. You have different findings and medical debates. We could see that in the room. There are some tremendous professionals that are taking a very cautious and conservative approach that are making it safer for our troops, NFL players, girls soccer players and that you can manage the risk of concussions, that we can do more to prevent it and that we can understand it better to make sure you fully recover from these injuries. The first thing to do is prevent it. That goes to rules, equipment. The second is our sideline assessment tools. We have made changes to that. There are some new technologies that make this very soon in the future where on a tablet, you can actually take a test on the sideline to determine (the concussion).''
Me: A tablet? An iPad? This year?
Goodell: "It's possible.''
Me: How do you expect the system to work this year?
Goodell: "The player has to self-report and has to tell professionals. We have spotters, as you know, our ATC [athletic trainers] spotters program, which we implemented late in the season to sort of identify hits that would require an evaluation. That will be expanded and fully in place this season. There's an ATC, which is an athletic trainer who's not active right now, but they'll be upstairs. They will have access to all the video and if they see a hit that involves a significant blow to the head or if a player demonstrates any kind of dizziness or potential slowness to get up, they call down to the sideline and make sure the medical professional has that number and they can go make an evaluation ... Now we have the technology to send the play down to the field, so that if a medical personnel wants to look at that, they can look at the play and that has been very helpful in the playoffs. It's almost like the instant replay setup. You'll see the equipment down behind the bench area. The ATC spotter can actually, just like we do with instant replay, send a play down if the trainer or the doctor wants to see a play. They can look at the play and see what they call the mechanisms of injury. That's the term that's used. Through the mechanism of injury, you can determine, 'OK, I need to look at that.' It's a tremendous tool for the doctors.
Me: Would the Colt McCoy story have been different with this set-up?
Goodell: "He was examined, but they were focusing on his hand, because that's what he was complaining about. There are two or three injuries on that one play that happened in different places ... I have to go back and look, but I'm quite certain we had the ATC spotter when the Colt McCoy hit happened. What was happening though was the doctors were in looking at him [at his hand, not his head], so the ATC spotter said, 'Well, he's being evaluated, so that's fine.' What was the fallacy in it is that they were evaluating the wrong thing. What we're going to do now is to say regardless of whether you see them being evaluated, you are to speak to them and you are to tell them that there is head-to-head contact and here's the play and look at it. You would have seen the Colt McCoy hit and would have said, 'Forget his thumb now. Let's focus on if he had any type of injury to his head.' ... He would not have gone back in after three or four plays. One of the things we're learning about concussions is sometimes the symptoms don't occur for several minutes. We don't know about the brain. It may just not be apparent for some period of time and that's another complicating factor to this."
Me: Next on your to-do list?
Goodell: "Clearly how we want the game to be safer for the current players, the former players and then how do I make the game more exciting for fans? There's fans still looking for new and different ways to engage with the game. Technology is a great opportunity to do that. We've talked about the player and health safety and the initiatives and that's first on my mind, but ... those new platforms, mobile devices, bringing technology into our stadiums, how do we make that stadium experience exciting? Those are ongoing challenges.''
We ended discussing the in-stadium experience. I said I'd learned a lot about the appreciation of the game from watching cricket in England with absolutely no bells and whistles and 105-decibel music -- simply the game. And he talked about how he'd love to find a way to replicate the natural excitement and fan involvement of world soccer, where, among other things, fans break out in song and chants through the game.
Sounds like a great goal for the NFL. To me, the way to do that isn't to bombard people with piped-in noise.
The NFL's a cauldron of news. I could have asked him about 25 other things. Hope you got a few things out of his words.
Here's an angle of the players' head-trauma litigation you haven't thought of.
A source with knowledge of the roster of the more than 2,100 players who have joined the various lawsuits against the NFL for ignoring and/or minimizing the results of head trauma in the pro game says some of the players in the suit will have zero or very little evidence of long-term damage.
I sought one of them out -- Rich Miano, 49, who played 11 years in the NFL, with the Jets, Eagles and Falcons -- and asked why he got involved.
Miano is hardly your typical plaintiff. He doesn't hate the NFL; he's thankful for what professional football did for him. He loves football. He says he doesn't want money. What he wants, other than to raise the focus on the importance of educating players about the risks of head injuries, is the ability to be covered by insurance if the day comes that he begins to suffer from dementia or a similar malady.
"This isn't about a money grab,'' Miano said from his home in Hawaii on Saturday. "It's an education grab. Colt McCoy gets [concussed] last year in a game and goes right back in. Two high school players here in Hawaii got put back in a game after concussions. There needs to be a huge outreach across all levels of football to educate people about the dangers of head trauma and football. Whatever happens -- win, lose or draw -- this is going to be good for every generation, past and future, because it will continue to educate people.''
One of the things Miano hopes, he said, for the next generation of athletes, and their families, is to believe football is safe enough to play. "I really want the soccer moms of America to feel better about football,'' he said.
Miano will be 50 in September. His former Eagles teammate, Andre Waters, would be 50 had he not killed himself. Another safety of their era, Dave Duerson, would be 51 today had he not killed himself. "It's bone-chilling to think about,'' said Miano. "Why am I so fortunate to be in the shape I am today when I played the same position as Andre and Dave? I made 700 tackles in 11 seasons and I seem to have withstood the punishment at least neurologically so much better.''
Miano said if he "takes a turn for worse'' mentally, "at 50 or 52 or whenever, I'd like to be able to be medically monitored.'' Still, the prospect of someone joining in a lawsuit who is asymptomatic to the base purpose of all the lawsuits will prick the NFL's interest, and could give the league a litigation strategy. How many more Mianos are there, and why do you sue an entity you're thankful to have been a part of?
"I go to bed every night knowing I'm in this for the right reasons.'' Miano said.
Things to think about with Darrelle Revis ...
Last week, I said Revis, due to make an average of $6.75 million in the last two years of his contract, would be justified in thinking he should be rewarded for being the best cornerback in football over the last two years of that contract. It's indisputable that he is the best corner in the game. But I doubt the Jets will entertain re-doing his deal for a few reasons.
1. Revis, out of college, signed a six-year contract. This will be his sixth year in the league. The Jets re-did his contract after three years. To address it again after five, with two years on the re-do of the original, would create a precedent GM Mike Tannenbaum probably wouldn't want to create, particularly with the cap remaining relatively flat in the next two years.
2. It's more likely the Jets could renegotiate Revis' deal next season, with a year left on the contract he signed in 2010. That would follow the lead of the Arizona Cardinals with Larry Fitzgerald. When the Cards reworked Fitzgerald's deal last season, it was with one year left on the reworked original contract.
3. It's not believed Tannenbaum ever told Revis or his representatives that he'd open up the contract again after two years.
It'd be surprising, I think, if Revis opened training camp with the Jets in late July. It'd also be surprising if the Jets didn't draw a pretty hard line in 2012.
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