Football commissioner Roger Goodell has been talked about a lot lately by football pundits. He's taking a lot of flack at the moment; his announcement that the NFL is talking about replacing the kickoff is being viewed with approximately the same amount of enthusiasm as New Coke, the recent changes to enforcement of illegal hits are being viewed as an attempt to neuter the game, and of course, everyone who follows football knows that his suspensions for the New Orleans players who deliberately attempted to injure their opponents have been vacated by his predecessors. (For those of you who don't follow football, um, yeah. I talk about it sometimes. Sorry if it's not your thing.)
But here's the thing--there's a common element to all of these stories (along with a couple of other ones floating around the periphery, like expanding the playoffs to 14 teams and possibly creating new teams in LA and London.) Reading them and hearing them gives me a lot of sympathy for Goodell. Because what he's trying to do is change the culture of football, and that doesn't come easily.
Historically, football players have prided themselves not so much on speed or strength as on "toughness"--the ability to endure pain and continue to play at a professional level. Men like Ronnie Lott were admired for their determination to get back on the field no matter what the consequences (Lott literally had part of his finger amputated rather than undergo surgery that would keep him off the field.) Dishing out punishment to your opponent, and showing that you can take more punishment than your opponent, was considered to be how you proved yourself as a real man on the field.
But the players that played in that era are old men now. More specifically, they are crippled old men--a lifetime of playing in that environment has left them with brain damage, arthritis, atrophied muscles and misfiring nerves...it is becoming clear to everyone that the problem with sacrificing your body for victories on the field is that the victories on the field last only a moment, while the pain and weakness lasts a lifetime. If for no other reason than simple legal considerations, the NFL has to take an active role in trying to reduce the number of on-field injuries. At the very least, they open themselves up to negligence lawsuits if they don't.
But since pretty much everyone announcing, commentating, and generally professionally opining on football is a former player, they all come out of the old culture where enduring pain was a point of pride. Paul Tagliabue's vacation of the Saints' suspension boiled down to "Yes, these players did deliberately accept money to try to injure players on the opposing team in an effort to knock them out of the game, but I don't think that's worth suspending anyone over." Troy Aikman and Kurt Warner admitted on 'Mike and Mike' that they didn't see what the big deal was...they knew that defenses were trying to injure them the entire time they played, and they just saw it as part of the game. Let's stress this--a man who retired because he suffered double-digit concussions is saying that he doesn't think it's a big deal to try to knock someone out of a game. The cognitive dissonance is absolutely stunning.
It's the same with all of these changes, really. The change to the kickoff sounds like it would actually be great for the game above and beyond simply reducing injuries (the scoring team gets the ball back with 4th and 15 from the 30, so they basically punt instead of kicking off. But since there's about a 10% higher chance of converting a 4th and 15 than recovering an onside kick, it might make the last few minutes of games that much more exciting.) But old-school players like Mike Ditka think it's a terrible idea, because they feel like the kickoff is where you separate the men from the boys in football. In the case of Ditka, it separates the men with hip replacements from the boys, but Ditka doesn't seem to make that connection.
Ultimately, whatever the players and pundits say, the changes will be made. Even if Goodell is scapegoated and driven out of the commissioner position as too heavy-handed, the next guy to come in will make them. There's too much money at stake if the players file a lawsuit for them not to make football a safer game. And ultimately, despite what the current crop of sports pundits say, that's a good thing. Perhaps it will be less of a "macho" pursuit, getting out on the gridiron...but it'll also mean that the players at the reunion might not be using two canes to get around.