ATLANTA – In the midst of a public relations storm that almost makes last year's labor negotiations look like a Hollywood after-party, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is about to face the one group of people who are actually happy with him.
The NFL is holding a meeting Tuesday at the Westin Hotel in Buckhead to go over a number of football and business matters. Among the issues of greatest interest to fans is a proposal to set the trade deadline after the eighth week of the season instead of the sixth. In addition, there is a proposal to be able to bring one player back from injured reserve during the season and to require players to wear thigh and knee pads starting in 2013.
Then there's the legal docket.
The NFL, generally, and Goodell, specifically, are under legal attack from just about every corner. More than 2,200 former players have filed various lawsuits against the league over concussions. The possible success of those lawsuits could significantly undermine the future of the game.
As for Goodell, he's being sued by suspended linebacker Jonathan Vilma for defamation regarding the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal. Additionally, Goodell's authority to suspend Vilma and three other current or former Saints teammates is being attacked by the NFL Players Association through arbitration.
[Michael Silver: Peers praise Jonathan Vilma for suing NFL commissioner]
If not for the fact that Goodell recently received a contract extension through March 2019, it might appear that Goodell is in some state of trouble. However, many owners and high-ranking officials around the league are unmoved by the rash of legal action.
"Roger's standing with the league is fine, don't mistake that," said one owner, who declined to be identified. "I don't want to say this stuff is minutia. That's not it. But it's also not all his doing and nothing he has done is out of step with what any of us believe should be done.
"He's acting in the best interests of the league."
Attorney David Cornwell, a former NFL employee who is now the executive director of the NFL Coaches Association, said the current commissioner is under far less pressure than what a predecessor once faced.
"This is like comparing players from different eras and asking, 'Who was best?' Between 1987 and 1993, the league certainly felt like it was under siege from all the antitrust lawsuits it faced and the labor situation," Cornwell said. "There are some people who believe that made [former NFL Commissioner Pete] Rozelle decide to retire."
In other words, some of what’s going on now may fade quickly.
For instance, Vilma's legal challenge could disappear quickly if a court decides that his claim falls under the arbitration process covered by the collective bargaining agreement. While Vilma filed the suit in Louisiana, seemingly giving himself home-court advantage, there may be no getting around the language of the CBA which indemnifies Goodell for acting as a representative of the NFL.
As for the concussion lawsuits, there are a series of questions that revolve around medical science. In short, what did the NFL know, what could it have known, when did it know it and when could it have known it?
In 1994, the NFL started the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) committee. However, it wasn't until a series of incidents over the past five years that concussion issues have become more of a focus in football. In 2008, pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu published his research on concussions in the NFL in his book "Play Hard, Die Young: Football Dementia, Depression and Death".
By 2010, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith criticized the NFL for not embracing Omalu's work in a speech before congress.
"There is simply no justification for the NFL to have previously ignored or discredited Dr. Omalu and others with relevant, valid research," Smith said at the time. "For far too long, our former players were left adrift; as I emphasized at the last hearing, we were complicit in the lack of leadership and accountability but that ends now. I am here again to make it clear that our commitment is unwavering."
Beyond that, there has been a rash of recent suicides among former players. In 2006, former player Andre Waters killed himself after a long bout with depression and mental illness. In February 2011, former player Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest and instructed that his brain be donated for research because of the concussions he suffered.
Earlier this year, former player and concussion lawsuit plaintiff Ray Easterling killed himself after years of dealing with head injuries. On May 2, 43-year-old Junior Seau committed suicide, although there is no indication whether Seau was suffering from head trauma after his 20-year career.
It's all very strong and dramatic evidence. Still, putting the NFL's feet to the fire in court may be a difficult task.
"If you get past the hurdle of figuring out what the NFL knew and when, then there's figuring out injury history for all of these players," a lawyer requesting anonymity said. "When were they hurt? Was it in college or the NFL? How much damage is the NFL liable for? When you're talking about this many people and this many lawsuits, it could be a very long process."
However, as Cornwell noted, it might be worth it if there are only a few gains.
"If this gets the NFL and the NFLPA to be more cognizant of these issues and do things like measure cognitive function and get base-line information, that's a positive," Cornwell said. "If it just prevents another situation like with [Water, Duerson or Seau], then that's enough."
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