PHOENIX -- Roger Goodell is scheduled to hold his annual State of the NFL press conference here Friday. If he can get through it without having to appoint an independent investigator, it will be his best public performance of the year.
In the image game, Goodell seems like he can’t win, or even keep the score close. Or find the field. But there is one thing he can say that would do wonders for him, not just publicly but with NFL players.
He could say that after next season, there won’t be any Thursday games, except for the season-opener and three games on Thanksgiving.
If he were to say that, the applause from his players would be overwhelming. Players have made it very clear: Playing pro football on Thursday night, after playing on Sunday, is like climbing out of a car wreck and jumping in front of a bus.
I asked Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin what his body feels like after a Thursday game, and he said, "Oh, it’s awful." Teammate Cliff Avril said: “You don’t really start feeling good until Thursday or Friday to play the next game.” Players around the league have said the same thing.
So why does the league do it? I’ll give you four choices:
A. Because together, we make football.
B. Thursday games bring clean water to impoverished communities in West Africa.
I’ll give you a minute to think about it.
Weren’t there supposed to be four choices?
Oh, right. Choice D is also Money.
"Thursday games are terrible, but the NFL don’t care," Avril said. "It’s money. They’re trying to add as many games as possible. Thursday games would definitely be something we’d like to take out, for sure, because the recovery time sucks. And the London trips, those are stupid, too. It’s all about the money."
This is Goodell’s reputation now: He is all about the money. He has earned the reputation -- not because he only cares about money, but because, given the choice between revenue and anything else, he seems to choose revenue every time. It clouds the view of everything he does.
Ending Thursday Night Football would show the world that Goodell’s NFL really, truly, does care about player safety, and the league is willing to give up revenue to prove it. It would be easy, too. The NFL has renewed its Thursday package with CBS for one more year, but the league is not committed beyond that.
The league brings in roughly $6 billion per year in television revenue alone, through deals with Fox, NBC, ESPN, CBS and DirecTV. It would do just fine without the revenue from one Thursday game per week.
There are two reasons to do this. One is that it would be make the game safer for the players. The other is that it would give Goodell credibility whenever he claims to do something "for the good of the game."
To understand the depth of Goodell’s image problem with players, consider this snippet from the NFL’s Health and Safety press conference Thursday. The NFL showed statistics proving that there were actually fewer injuries in Thursday night games last year than on Sundays.
NFL senior vice president Jeff Miller acknowledged that the Thursday sample size was small, but sample size is not the problem. The problem is that the entire statistic is a joke.
Miller said the NFL counts any player who misses a practice or game as being injured. But after a Thursday night game, players don’t practice again until at least the following Monday, and teams do not release injury reports until Wednesday. It seems rather obvious that players are more likely to miss practice after a Sunday game than after a Thursday game, because practice is held sooner after a Sunday game.
No player could look at such an obviously distorted statistic and take the rest of the press conference seriously. Players know how their bodies feel after two games in five days. You can’t use a chart to tell them they’re wrong. And this is why, no matter how much money the NFL spends on concussion research or grants for new technology, players will wonder if it is just a public-relations move.
The NFL is safer now than it was 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, thanks to some new rules (even though they are inconsistently enforced) and increased awareness. Even the biggest cynic has to admit there are people in the NFL trying to make the sport safer. St. Louis Rams team physician Matthew Matava said there has been “a cultural sea change” and players realize now “you don’t have to be knocked out to have a concussion.” Compared to where the league was a decade ago, this is real progress.
But the NFL said Thursday that there were 0.43 concussions per game in 2014, and this is also very hard to take seriously. That means the average NFL team suffered three or four concussions the entire year, numbers that simply do not match up with what we are seeing occur on the field.
This season, we saw Russell Wilson and Ben Roethlisberger suffer what looked like potential concussions and stay in the game, despite the NFL’s concussion protocol. Publicizing a stat like 0.43 concussions per game makes players roll their eyes. They know that undiagnosed concussions and the cumulative effect of sub-concussive hits are a huge part of the story.
Pro football has been a brutal game since it was invented, and Goodell inherited many of the issues that have blown up during his reign. But he also has a habit of lapsing into money-grabs and weak spin-doctoring instead of taking substantive stands.
Canceling the Thursday games would be a real stand. It would resonate in the league. It is both the right thing to do and a great public relations move. All it would cost is money. And that’s why I can’t find anybody who believes Goodell will even consider it.
I asked Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett what he would like to ask Goodell, and here is what he said:
"What’s his salary? How does he weigh his salary? How does he make so much money? How does he make more than the players? Why is his house so big? Why do his kids go to private school? And how does he get to make all the rules?"
It was a funny answer (Bennett is very good at giving funny answers) but it made a greater point: This is how players view Goodell. To many of them, he is not a partner. He is a money-first, everything-else-second kind of guy. And it’s hard to argue with them.
"It’s a little hypocritical when the league is talking about the importance of safety but you’ll have weeks when teams will play two games in five days," Baldwin said. "It’s put a burden on us, a responsibility to try to get healthy quicker. In order for us to survive, we’ve adapted to it. But I don’t think us going to more Thursday games is based on the safety of players. That’s based on the revenue of the NFL."
How much is enough? Goodell has set a goal of $25 billion in annual revenue by 2027. The NFL has so many revenue streams. Can’t the league shut down just this one?
“It’s a bunch of billionaires you’re talking about,” Avril said, “That’s how they make their money. Is there really a limit on money? They’re going to try to make as much money as they can.”