Goodell Talks Concussions, Health Care

On June 19, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell answered press questions at the start of the NFL Player & Health Meeting. The meeting, which broke as Goodell headed off to the Rookie Symposium, covered a wide variety of topics.

In this transcript, Goodell talks about the need for a more serious take on concussions and their effects, the ongoing controversy regarding benefits and health care for retired players, and the overall standard of care in the NFL.

Several initiatives were put forth. There will be new "whistlebower policies" when it comes to teams that don't take concussions seriously and attempt to rush players back to the playing field when it's dangerous to do so; the idea that medical concerns should override competitive concerns will be the order of the day; all NFL Players will undergo neuropsychological testing; non-NFL affiliated physicians will be a part of the process; player education about concussions will become more of a focus; and equipment rules relating to player safety will be more strictly enforced.

Lost in the attention given to Goodell's new personal conduct policy and the actions taken against a multitude of transgressors is the new consideration given to player health and overall care. Over time, this unsung focus could prove to have the greater impact.

Roger Goodell: This is an important day in the National Football League. We've had some very good dialogue in the early part of the day, and I'm going back in as soon as we're done here. We have a number of people here that are bringing different perspectives, which I think will help us improve the care for our players and their safety and health long term. So we're excited about what we will learn today.

I'll be happy to take your questions.

Q: Do you believe doctors on the sideline have sufficient information to make informed decisions about whether or not a player returns to games after suffering
a head injury in the current system?

RG: We do. Looking at the research, we're seeing our doctors have been making excellent decisions. That's proven by the six-year study and the research that's been done, which looks at that issue intensively. We're continuing to learn in this area, and if we can make better decisions in the future, we'll certainly try to do that, but I think the evidence is that our people have made excellent decisions.

Q: Do you feel that the research you are conducting will also benefit football players at all levels?

RG: Let me make one particular point here – we're dealing with NFL players here. That's what our doctors are talking about here. We recognize that whatever we do is going to get a great deal of attention and could have an influence in other areas, but we want to be very careful. This is about NFL players and how NFL players are treated, because there is a difference in the levels as we saw in some of the research this morning.

On the other hand, I'm not a doctor, so I won't be making these determinations. You'll be hearing from doctors later. I think that it's been proven that our people have made very good decisions about return to play, and I expect they will continue to do so. We'll give them as much information as possible.

Q: What do you think when you hear about former NFL players who are suffering from symptoms that have only been seen in boxers or people over 80 years old? What does that say about the effect of concussions on your players?

RG: I think the important thing you have to consider – again I'm not a doctor here – but you have to look at their entire medical history. To look at something that's isolated without looking at their entire history, I think that is irresponsible. From my standpoint, not being a doctor, that makes logical sense to me. I think that's what you are seeing here. You're seeing some great scientists and doctors, who have done terrific work in this area, that are sharing their information. And they don't all agree, by the way. This is an evolving science. This is an evolving area, and that's OK. That will further our agenda and improve our care.

Q: So when Dr. Ira Casson disputes the findings of Dr. Bennet Omalu – that football-related injuries may have contributed to the deaths of Andrea Waters and Mike Webster – is he speaking on behalf of the league, or is that just his medical opinion?

RG: The league does not have a medical background here. We have gone out and sought independent doctors to be able to give us advice in this area. The operative phrase in your question is "may have." I think that's important for all of you to understand – "may have." We are not focused here on "may." We want to find out exactly what is happening with our players, both current and former players, and make sure that we are providing the best possible care. Doctors will be out here, including some of the ones who have been critical of the work we've done, and you can ask those questions of them.

Q: But you must be concerned not only as the commissioner but as a human being when you see these reports. How big of a concern do you think concussions are for your league?

RG: That's one of the reasons why we're bringing all of our doctors together here – to make sure we are doing the best possible job we can to provide the best care for our players. It is important to us that our players have the best possible care.

Q: Why push this to the forefront? Was there anything that triggered you to say, "This is the time to jump on this issue?"

RG: That's a good question. I think the one thing that troubles me sometimes when I see media reports is that this is all of a sudden something that we've started to focus on. We've had this committee for 14 years. We have done terrific work, and our doctors and scientists have been working at this diligently. This is not something that is new. This is something that our people have been very focused on, and I credit Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw for their leadership in this area. I've only been commissioner for one year, and as I've gotten involved, I've tried to understand this subject better. I think it was important for us to take the steps that we have taken this spring, including today's seminar.

Q: You mentioned in your opening remarks that there may be as many as 3.8 million concussions every year. What trickle down effect do you hope the work that you do has here on other sports, both professional and amateur?

RG: Awareness is the most important thing. Beyond awareness, you get into medical decisions, and I think we have to be cautious about taking something that is learned on an NFL level and applying that to somebody that might be playing at the high school level. As I understand it, there's even a difference between professional and college, and college compared to high school.

You have to be very cautious, including the media here, of taking something that we learn here on the NFL level and applying it to all levels. I think awareness of this issue and getting proper medical care is important.

Q: For the upcoming season, what systems will be implemented for prevention, treatment and long-term diagnosis of concussions?

RG: The most significant thing we've done is mandate that all players undergo neuropsychological testing. They will have a baseline test so we will be able to evaluate the players over some period of time, including if they've had a concussive event. We're also looking at a number of other things, some of which may come out of here today, including the importance of chin straps being buckled properly and the prohibition of modifications being made to helmets.

All of us are looking to see if the protocol that we're going through in evaluating concussions, whether that can be shared with all clubs to make sure that those clubs are properly identifying concussions and managing them properly.

Q: What about the whistle-blower system? How far along are you on that?

RG: It will be in place this season. It will be in place by the start of training camp. It will not just be games, it will be at practices. It's an important element of what we are trying to accomplish here. I have said repeatedly that medical decisions must override any competitive decisions. If any player feels he is being forced on to the field when he is not ready to play, we want to know about that and look into it.

Q: Confidentiality is important, but we see that leaks happen when drug test results come out. With this whistle-blower system, do you think there will be a worry from players about leaks?

RG: I don't assume that the whistle-blower would be a player himself necessarily. Maybe even a doctor could feel like his decision was being overridden. I don't hear from our doctors, but I think that information could come from a variety of different places. I don't assume the players are the only ones who could blow the whistle, if that's your question.

Re: Players wanting get back on the field as soon as possible after head injuries.

RG: You know our athletes are great competitors. They want to play and they want to compete, but they also need to be protected from themselves sometimes. That is why doctors are making medical decisions on the sideline. Those medical decisions will be the dominant factor. They will not be made on a competitive basis. They will be made on medical decisions. When a player suffers a concussive event, he is going to be evaluated by medical personnel and a determination will be made on whether or not he can play. It will not be the player necessarily making that decision.

Q: Several doctors are hopeful that improved helmet technology can help reduce concussions in the future. Where do things stand right now in that area? Is the league hopeful that more advances will be made?

RG: Yes. In fact, just last week, we met with someone else who has designed another helmet that we will be studying through our committee to determine whether it does meet the standards and whether it can improve the quality and performance for the players. We do look at that. We mentioned the chin strap, and there's an ongoing study about mouth guards to see if those can improve the quality of protection for players. The facemask has been under consideration. We have some studies going on regarding that, to make sure the facemask is the proper type of protection gear.

Q: Is there a minimum amount of credentials a person must possess to make decisions on players? Is there a certain type of medical background they need?

RG: I think the quality of care NFL players are getting is outstanding. I think you can talk to the doctors about that. Everything that I've heard is that our players are getting outstanding medical care. Doctors are there on a regular basis.

Q: There's been an increasing call from former players to improve disability benefits. What is your position on that? Are the league and union doing enough to help players with disabling injuries?

RG: I look at the medical issues and I think that we as a league continually look to see what we can do better. If former players are having issues that need to be dealt with, then I think we should see what we can do about that. We have been working with Gene on alternatives over the last several months, and I think we have some programs that will be responsive, particularly as it relates to potential joint replacement, which is an issue that many former players are dealing with. So we are looking to see what we can do. We have a meeting scheduled with former players in mid-July and we hope to be able to announce something by that time.

Q: Are you comfortable with the level of care and the current level of access to disability benefits for former players?

RG: I don't know about "comfortable." I'm not sure I understand what you mean.

Q: Do you think the league is currently doing enough for players, or do you think you can do more?

RG: As I said, we are always looking to see what else we can do to help former players that are dealing with issues. We'll continue to do that. Gene Upshaw has led the way on this, I support that, and we will do everything we possibly can to make sure they get proper care.

Q: What is your goal for today's conference?

RG: To me, the most important thing is that we are inviting discourse. We are inviting critics of our work to come in and share their perspective so that we can all learn something. There is no one that has all the answers in this area. I don't think anyone is being irresponsible. I think everyone is being extremely responsible in trying to bring awareness to this, and to not only improve medical care for our players, but for people who suffer concussions, which happens frequently outside the NFL.

Q: Were there any numbers presented about the rate of concussions in the NFL in recent seasons?

RG: Yes, there was a six-year study in which every concussion was evaluated and we looked at the care of each of those individuals. Those numbers will be available to you later today.

Q: I have those numbers that ended in 2001. I think it was about .4 concussions per game?

RG: .48.

Q: I was wondering if anything has changed since then over the past five seasons?

RG: You'll have to ask the people who have done the study.

Q: Are there any plans to include evaluation of former players who have suffered concussions?

RG: We are doing a number of studies that involve former players that have had injuries. We also have three NFL players in the room today that are here because of their interest in this issue. I have had a number of discussions with both current and former players that have had concussive events, and we've had a dialogue about the importance of this. I've talked to a number of these people myself, so we are being very responsive and inviting people to come in and bring us information that we all can learn from. I've seen a great response from some of these players. They all want to help us learn something more.

Q: Is there one message you've gotten from these players that you feel is most important in making decisions on concussions?

RG: No, I don't think so. I think awareness is probably the most important thing, but I think each of these cases have to be looked at individually because they all have unique medical issues. You can't just look at the concussive event in and of itself. There's an entire medical history that has to be evaluated as part of any serious research in this area. That's what we're doing. We're looking not only at the concussive events, but also entire medical histories so we can see how that may have had an impact. Top Stories