Another step in the right direction is the decrease in demands on players during the off-season. The CBA mandates a maximum of nine weeks of off-season training at team complexes beginning in mid-April. That's down from the previous standard of 14 weeks starting in early March. Such extra time can be spent on continuing or completing education, exploring business opportunities and otherwise preparing for life outside of football. Browns tight end Benjamin Watson, a member of the players' association executive board, says he knows of two players this year who were able to return to college for the second semester to finish work on their degrees.
"Our players now have more of a legitimate off-season, which helps make the transition to the real world easier," said NFLPA president Domonique Foxworth.
It's a start.
AN ANGRY 3,000
In June more than 80 lawsuits against the NFL involving some 3,000 plaintiffs—former players, as well as family members of deceased players—were consolidated into one large lawsuit. The plaintiffs claim that the league, over an extended period of time, withheld information indicating that head injuries suffered in football could lead to brain damage and other serious medical conditions. The NFL is due in court in Philadelphia on Aug. 19 to address the charge and, possibly, to ask for the case to be dismissed. "We have a high degree of confidence in our legal position," says Pash.
If it is heard, the case will be nettlesome for the league because of the wide range of plaintiffs. In fact, some are not even hurt and show no signs of lingering head injuries. Former defensive back Rich Miano, 50, says he joined the suit to help educate the football community and the general public about head injuries, and so that he'll be insured if one day he begins to suffer psychological debility. Some, however, have serious conditions, and some—such as the wife of former Falcons safety Ray Easterling, who killed himself in April—are representing aggrieved families.
"I'm a football fanatic, and I don't want to see the game destroyed," said former Packers running back Dorsey Levens, a plaintiff who says he suffered multiple concussions in a seven-year NFL career, leading to sleeplessness, irritability and forgetfulness today. "But we know the NFL is ignoring a lot of guys who need help. My ultimate goal in this would be to get lifetime care for all the guys who played this game."
The league has clearly made head trauma a priority in Goodell's regime. Just ask the players who have gotten huge fines for powerful hits above the shoulder in the last two seasons. And the NFL is working with independent neurologists and head-trauma experts in the U.S. military to develop technology to make helmets safer. Nevertheless, if the lawsuit lingers and the case goes to trial, the resulting publicity could affect parents trying to decide if their children should play football. Brian Mulroney of Readington, N.J., loves the game, but he and his wife are hesitant to let their seven-year-old son, Jimmy, suit up. "My fear is having him play at seven, eight, nine, when it's a relatively safe game, having him fall in love with it, and then pulling him out because we're worried about his safety," Mulroney said. "I know the NFL is working on making it a safer game, but when they showed that Colt McCoy hit 50 times on SportsCenter last year, I mean, the kids are watching that. It's not good."
That said, kids are still playing the game. "We've been going up about two percent a year," said Jon Butler, who is in his 21st year as executive director of Pop Warner youth football. "We expect our numbers to be up this year, though it's too early to say for sure."
One more piece of off-season fun: The Wall Street Journal reported this month that NFL attendance is down 4.5% since 2007, and that league and club officials have been working on ticket drives and stadium enhancements, such as improved Wi-Fi for smartphone patrons, to combat the decline in some struggling markets. But several owners and top club officials last week contended not only that the sky was not falling, but also that the future appears sunny and bright.