NFL, Goodell sideline the concussion story

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is a public relations genius.

That’s right, a real American genius if you will.

John Kass2

If you don’t believe it, then you’ve probably had your brains scrambled so hard that they leaked out your ear and plopped right onto the 50-yard line.

I’ll tell you why he’s such a genius, and why the NFL is so damn smart in its marketing of violent spectacle as a family activity, but we’ll get to that later on in this space.

First, though, just forget that business of Goodell’s head on a spike.

There have been many loud demands for his head. I’ve shrieked for it too. But despite all our whining, he’s withstood the criticism over how he’s handled his raging gladiators.

For the NFL it’s been weeks of bad news and horrible stories of domestic abuse, one enraged NFL star punching his wife’s lights out on video, another NFL star whipping a baby with a stick.

And then he installed that posse of female lawyers to protect him from the charge that the NFL didn’t care much about women, and reporters asking the usual process questions as if the NFL were the federal government.

What did Goodell know? When did he know it? Who saw the video? Who didn’t want to see it?

It became a game of lawyers and spin. But through it all, the fans wanted just one thing. The game.

And even with all that bad news, they’re still filling the stadiums and buying the gear and clamoring for the product. They’re ready for some football.

Bears and Packers; Chiefs and Patriots; Christians and Lions.

What fans want is a clash of titans, the hits and those long touchdowns and a chorus of chesty girls in their white boots prancing on the frozen tundra.

And the game is told to us by broken old players breaking down the Xs and Os, and standing next to them are professional broadcasters, their voices like silver cornets.

The fans? We plop down on our leather couches at home and scan our laptops to check our fantasy league teams.

Fans might feel uncomfortable about a woman dragged out of a hotel elevator like a sack of onions, or a 4-year-old boy screaming under his father’s punishment.

But we want our football, damn it. We want not only the game, but all of it, the show, the spangles, the theater and ritual of it. Americans are primed for the NFL the way the Romans were primed for the Colosseum. It’s a cultural thing.

Some of us who watch the games face a moral dilemma every Sunday. I know what it is I’m watching, and still I watch, the way I’ll watch a prizefight, knowing what I know about old fighters.

And I’ll go through periods when I don’t watch at all. But some days, my eyes turn to it, and I curse myself for watching a game that we now know compels athletes to risk everything, even their sanity.

But just as the Ray Rice saga was playing out, with the viral video of the Ravens running back knocking his wife out cold in that elevator, another story was breaking:

Nearly one-third of NFL retired players can expect to suffer long-term cognitive problems, including dementia.

And those conditions will manifest themselves at “much younger ages” than they do in the rest of the population.

In other words, you play enough football, you get your brains scrambled for good.

The figures weren’t released by some football-hating group. It was released by the NFL, in a study by its actuaries in federal court, as part of a lawsuit settlement over brain injuries.

“The actuaries are saying it because it’s true,” Eleanor Perfetto, an epidemiologist, was quoted by The New York Times. She is representing the interests of her husband, former NFL player Ralph Wenzel, who died two years ago.

“The bottom line is that prevalence (of cognitive problems) is higher in NFL players,” she said. “They’re going to hide behind whatever they can.”

The league has been marketing to women for years now. NFL marketing people have explained that American women make many of the decisions about what products are purchased by families.

Like NFL jerseys and other gear.

But did you hear about that story, that a third of the NFL should expect brain damage? Did you see any accompanying stories showing players with headaches and the 1,000-yard stare, and a quick cut to little boys pulling on helmets on and rushing out to smash their bodies on Pop Warner fields?

No, I didn’t see any of that either.

For the most part, the off-field football news has been about domestic violence, and the excuses some players offer as they beat compliance into their women and children.

But I haven’t seen much lately about football scrambling the brains of players.

So for the NFL to get through the domestic violence coverage without confronting the bleak reality of their own brain injury numbers is pure genius.

Women are not only the purchasing agents of American families. Many are also mothers. They are life givers.

And some still send their young sons out onto football fields, to learn the game and keep the NFL strong and healthy and profitable and alive.

So don’t tell me Roger Goodell and the NFL owners aren’t geniuses. Just don’t tell me that.

(John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune who also hosts a radio show on WLS-AM. His e-mail address is [email protected], and his Twitter handle is @john_kass.)

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