It’s those iconic mental snapshots woven together over time in the public’s consciousness that ultimately shape the enduring impression.
The images from Super Bowl XLVIII — whether they be of light snow falling at MetLife Stadium to evoke memories of a bygone era or snarled traffic in blizzard-like conditions — will be part of the tapestry that emerges as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s legacy, along with those Bountygate-related signs at last year’s game in New Orleans urging restaurants not to serve him, and video of Golden Tate’s phantom game-winning TD that exposed the farce of replacement officials.
But it’s those haunting portraits of the late Junior Seau and the subsequent evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), scenes of players with both hands on their helmet, unable to rise from the turf, and tales from former combatants detailing bouts with dementia that will ultimately frame Goodell’s stay at the top of this multibillion-dollar enterprise.
So he treads the fine line between milking professional football’s cash cow and the moral obligation to long-retired players who made it all possible. There’s the responsibility of maintaining the integrity of the game that has emerged as a powerhouse on the sports landscape and the weight of making the sport safer at every level.
And all that’s at stake is the future of sport.
“Go through the history of the league, and what you begin to understand is that it has developed based on the men who were running it at the time,” said Joe Horrigan, vice president of exhibits for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and one of the game’s pre-eminent historians.
“There are some decisions commissioners have had to make that determined whether the league even existed. So now Roger is facing the same thing, where every decision made will impact what’s next for the league and its success. What he’s faced with are difficult questions, but it’s no different than those who preceded him.
“As we look back retroactively it’s easy to say, ‘Well, that wasn’t a big deal,’ but the reality is that when it was happening, it was a huge deal.”
Black-and-white photos of Vince Lombardi accepting the silver championship trophy that would eventually bear his name after what would become Super Bowl I, the grainy video of the Colts’ moving trucks sneaking out of Baltimore in the dead of night and the sight of Howard Cosell behind the Monday Night Football microphone, harnessing the full power of television, helped define Pete Rozelle’s tenure as commissioner.
Insight into Paul Tagliabue’s 17 years on the job can be found amid his announcement that they would suspend play in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, helping atone for their decision to play two days after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, photographs of him holding a jersey for the expansion Carolina Panthers and standing side-by-side with NFL Players’ Association head Gene Upshaw, maintaining labor peace during his tenure.
Decades of decision-making, chronicled in faded newspaper clippings and newsreel footage, set the stage for what has been a period of unrivaled prosperity.
Joe Carr was charged with organizing the barnstorming early professional teams into a league, while moving them from small towns into the baseball-dominated cities. Elmer Layden navigated World War II and the lack of players, supplies and transportation, understanding that football was a needed distraction for the American public. Bert Bell fended off a challenge from a strong rival league and dealt with gambling issues that posed a threat to the sport’s integrity.
Brain trauma and its lasting effects were a problem long before Goodell took office in 2006, with the league seeking to downplay the issue for years. Tagliabue infamously marginalized it by referring to it as little more than a “pack journalism issue” in 1994, leaving a black mark on his legacy.
But it’s fallen into Goodell’s lap, both on the field and in the courtroom. And his ability to both make the game safer moving forward, while overcoming an unwillingness to acknowledge the link between concussions and long-term health issues, and the resultant litigation, holds the key to his place in history.
In 2012, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health released the findings of a study in which the 3,500 players in the league between 1959 and 1988 surveyed were found to be three times more likely to develop neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and dementia.
On Aug. 29, just prior to the start of the season, the NFL announced it had reached a settlement in a lawsuit involving more than 4,500 former players who claimed the league knew about the dangers of game-related head injuries and did little about it, agreeing to pay $765 million.
But that deal was dealt a serious blow on Tuesday when Judge Anita Brody denied that preliminary motion, concerned about the fairness of the monetary figure given the league’s 18,000 retirees. Now it appears the NFL, which has also committed to $75 million for baseline testing for asymptomatic men and $10 million for medical research and education, could be facing a judgment that’s significantly higher.
All the while, Goodell has become increasingly unpopular with current players, even though suspending New Orleans Saints players and coaches due to their bounty program and new rules regarding contact and the large number of resulting fines are aimed at reducing the long-term impact on the game.
“I have deep feelings for those former players and what they’ve done for the game,” said Ray Didinger, a Philadelphia-based journalist who has written extensively on the history of the NFL. “Now you’re talking about expanding the schedule to 18 games and adding wild-card games and Thursday night games. You can accuse me of being old school and behind the times, and I don’t understand the modern marketplace, but I have a problem with the direction they’re taking.
“It’s a contradiction when you say you’re all about player safety and then you ask them to play 15 Thursday night games. If you want to do one to kick off the season, that’s fine, and Thanksgiving games are traditional. But as far as every Thursday, you’re just hurting players.”
It remains to be seen whether Goodell can shepherd in a new era where fans still clamor for an on-field product in which the most violent hits are eliminated, where the lessons learned at the highest level can trickle down to make the game safer for America’s youth, and where those in desperate need of assistance get help before it’s too late.
“There’s never going to be a day in our lives where we don’t have our critics and we don’t have our naysayers that may not agree with some of the decisions,” Horrigan said. “What’s happening now is very consistent with how the NFL has addressed its major issues from the beginning of the game until now.”
Would it help if Goodell stood up, said “Sorry” and apologized for a league that has yet to make any admission of guilt on how it’s handled the issue of brain trauma over the years? Perhaps from a public relations standpoint, but it wouldn’t change anything.
Brain injuries, long thought to be little more than an occupational hazard, have always been part of the game. In 1904 and 1905, 37 football-related deaths were reported, mostly among college players.
Now, Goodell’s legacy is tied directly to making sure the NFL doesn’t have an on-field tragedy, while taking full responsibility for the former players who built a league that rakes in $10 billion in profits annually.