The NFL Player Safety War Rages On: Roger Goodell Faces Impossible Fight

Conor Orr
Sports Illustrated

We’re about to return to the main debate stage.

The NFL mirrors politics in that there is always minutia to squabble about; smaller, less intense issues that orbit around the question everyone is afraid or unable to answer. We form factions, gripping white knuckled to our opinion on everything from diluted product to color rush uniforms. All the while, we keep one eye on the elephant in the room.

At least in the NFL world, that luxury ended this week thanks to a convergence of events that seem impossibly linked for the time being. Player safety, and how to attain it when a thousand diverging interests are all pulling at the core product, is a discussion that won’t go away.

Consider the first half of this week (starting Sunday) in the professional football universe: A flurry of suspensions were doled out for on-field conduct. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was suspended for one game after elbow-dropping a Bills player following the whistle and sending him into concussion protocol. Bengals safety George Iloka was suspended one game for throttling Antonio Brown after a touchdown catch (it was later rescinded) on Monday Night Football. Juju Smith-Schuster was also suspended one game for laying out Vontaze Burfict and standing over him after the hit (his appeal was denied). Earlier in that game, linebacker Ryan Shazier was carted off the field following a terrifying moment where he lay motionless on the field. He remains hospitalized, though he was recently transferred back to Pittsburgh.

On Wednesday, NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent told NFL.com that the league was considering a targeting rule like the NCAA has, which could eject a player for “targeting defenseless opponents above the shoulders or using the crown of the helmet to contact an opponent.” Also on Wednesday, the NFL’s compensation committee reached agreement with commissioner Roger Goodell on a new long-term contract. Goodell has to find a way to appease a sect of players who feel the already biblical rule book hampers their ability to play and the alumni who have seen the long-term damage that a career in the NFL can do to one’s body.

Here’s Steelers safety Mike Mitchell on Wednesday:

“At the end of the day this is FOOT…BALL,” Mitchell told reporters. “You wana see flag football then lets take our pads off and make it easier for me so I don’t have to wear heavy s---. But give us flags for me to pull off – that way I know what I’m playing. You know, I signed up to play full-speed contact football and we’re not doing that. I feel like I gotta ask a guy – ‘Hey are you ready for me to hit you right now before I hit you?’ And that’s crazy. I’m going to mess around trying to get hurt because I’m trying to protect an offensive player who is running an over route. Dammit, your quarterback shouldn’t have thrown that ball messed up.

“That happened two years ago, and I’m not joking at all. Andy Dalton threw a ball to Tyler Eifert two years ago. Tyler Eifert had to dive for it. I was aiming for his gut but if he doesn’t dive he doesn’t get hit in the head. That’s 50 grand out of my pocket though because Andy throws a bad ball. Make that make sense.

“At first you’re taking our money but now I got a--holes like (ESPN analyst) Matt Hasselbeck calling me a dirty player and trying my character. We’ve never met before. I donate more money to Cincinnati underprivileged kids than probably the Bengals. So don’t give me that name….

“We've just got to do better as players when we sign the next CBA, we've got to get better leadership as to who's running the league because obviously everybody from fans, owners, players – all disappointed in Roger Goodell. We've just got to do better, we can't have a guy where you just hand out discipline on how you see fit, there needs to be a set guideline of how we do what we do."

And here’s NFL veteran Osi Umenyiora? on Twitter responding:

Are players really this dumb? Hate to say it but cmon. Former players have died and are dying horrible deaths because of head trauma. And you’re complaining because the league is taking steps to at least try and reduce it. “Make it flag football.” Ridiculous

Long-time play-by-play announcer Brent Musberger said those who can’t stomach NFL violence are “snowflakes.” The New York Daily News argued that fans should be more disgusted with what happened in the Steelers-Bengals game than players kneeling for the national anthem. Nothing is simple anymore. Now, every time we take a side we embody the most hardcore version of an argument. No middle ground.

At least in politics, the man or woman in charge has the ability not to care about what the other side thinks. They’re supporting an ideology. Goodell has to let the players play but keep them safe. He has to appease the hesitant football mom to be and the beer-guzzling lifer who still fantasizes about Jack Youngblood. He has to be business savvy but grounded in common sense. Goodell is Sisyphus.

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PRESS COVERAGE

1. Injured Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. doesn't think there's much difference between his sideline antics, and the antics of the greatest quarterback in NFL history.

2. The Jaguars are loaded this year, in case you didn't know.

3. The Giants caved and are officially starting Eli Manning again. Here's why we think that's a bad idea.

4. The season is over for Bengals first-round pick John Ross.

5. Former Giants head coach Ben McAdoo says goodbye. It's a startling reminder that firing season begins earlier and earlier every year.

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6. The Ringer goes deep on New England fixing its defensive woes.

7. Dak Prescott's mega gross balloon hand was used for throwing on Wednesday, a good sign for Cowboys fans who still believe in their 7.1 percent chance to make the playoffs.

8. The Green Bay Packers are up to an 11.2 percent chance of making the playoffs with the Cleveland Browns on their schedule this weekend. If one thing can save this misery pit of a season, it's the league's most talented quarterback riding in on a white horse to make things interesting (Aaron Rodgers is about two weeks from a return).

9. A wild nugget on the Bears from the Chicago Tribune: The Bears' last three-game winning streak was in 2013 under Marc Trestman. The Torotno Argonauts won the Grey Cup this year, by the by.

10. Here, finally, is the Case Keenum-Fran Tarkenton thinkpiece we've all been waiting for.

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THE KICKER

When newsletter proprietor Jacob Feldman is away from the controls, we're going to play some Grateful Dead. On this day in 1979, the greatest band in music history played the Indianapolis Convention Center (now home to part of the NFL combine experience). They closed with Johnny B. Goode.

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