Column: NFL safety not just a current issue

Associated Press Published: November 17, 2012
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But there might come a day when there's enough research and information available so a parent can make a decision on whether their child plays football or not. There might be a time when players themselves can assess their future health risks and decide whether to continue their careers.

That will be good for the game itself, and certainly good for the NFL, which rode the wave of big hits to become by far the most popular sport in the country. No one can guarantee player safety, but it's hard to argue with the league itself making it a priority.

Left unsaid in Goodell's speech, though, was what to do with the players of the past. Not the college players of 1904, but the NFL players of recent decades.

Goodell didn't mention them, and with good reason. Thousands of them are suing the NFL over brain-related injuries, and the NFL is fighting them with all the lawyers it can muster at every turn.

These aren't just practice squad members or fringe players trying to cash in on short careers. There are some big names among the 3,500 plaintiffs, including Tony Dorsett and at least 26 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. One of the plaintiffs, former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling, committed suicide in April at age 62, and an autopsy found he had CTE.

His widow and the other plaintiffs claim the NFL not only exposed players to risk they shouldn't have taken, but deceived them and club doctors by insisting repeatedly that head trauma carried little long-term risk.

"On the NFL's watch, football has become the site of perhaps the gravest health crisis in the history of sports," lawyers for the former players argued in motions last month asking a judge to reject the NFL's efforts to dismiss their suits.

The suits have the potential of costing the NFL money, and lots of it. That's why the league has fought them so hard, no matter how at odds the stance is with the current push toward safer play.

One of Goodell's mantras in his speech at Harvard was that the game is evolving, and for the better. Change, he said, can only improve the sport and the league along with it.

He's right about that. But there's something else the NFL can change, too.

Doing something to improve the lives of the guys who helped get the league where it is today would be a good place to start.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg



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