By Julie DiCaro–
(CBS) Another game, another brutal helmet-to-helmet hit on Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
At this point, it’s become a macabre running joke. It seems that every game, Newton takes a clearly illegal hit to the head, gets no call and the league apologizes the next morning for missing the penalty. In Carolina’s game against Washington on Monday night, the league added insult to injury by flagging Newton for tossing the ball at a downed linebacker Trent Murphy, just moments after Murphy put his helmet into the back of Newton’s head. Newton’s noggin has taken so much abuse at the hands of defenses the last two seasons, he had a sit-down meeting in November with commissioner Roger Goodell, during which time Newton told Goodell he didn’t feel safe on the field. Just five days after that meeting, Newton again took an unflagged hit to the head from Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
USA Today’s For the Win claims officials have missed 10 illegal hits on Newton since the start of the 2015 season, and that was before Monday. Watching league officials miss hit after hit on Newton becomes even more madding considering that Goodell infamously accused fans of not caring about player safety back in November.
“The fans are more interested in football,” Goodell said. “We are the ones who make safety a priority. They support that because they want to see their players play. …(But) I’d be fooling you if I don’t say: I hear guys that say, ‘Just let them play.'”
This is high comedy coming from Goodell, the head of a league that has been loathe to acknowledge a link between football and CTE and which constantly touts its efforts to make the game safer while at the same time interfering with federal research into the causes of CTE. In fact, not only did the NFL restrict $30 million in funding from being used by Boston University researchers that the league felt was unfriendly to the NFL, but the New York Times also accused the league of trying to influence concussion research by drastically under-reporting concussions over a six-year period.
Last month, Sports Illustrated conducted a survey with NFL fans across the country, which was touted as the longest and most comprehensive survey of fans in the magazine’s history. A whopping 94 percent of fans surveyed said head injuries are a serious problem in football. Thirty-five percent of fans said the league isn’t taking adequate measures to protect players from concussions. Would Goodell agree with nine out of 10 fans that head injuries are a serious problem in football? Given his history of side-stepping the question, it’s difficult to know.
NFL ratings saw a historic drop off this season for many reasons. Speaking anecdotally, I’ve had longtime NFL fans tell me they feel quality of play is down, they’ve been turned off by the league’s evil empire image, that three nights a week is too much NFL and even that they’ve stopped watching the game due to the league’s seeming inability to get a handle on issues of violence against women. More than any of those, though, friends and strangers have told me they struggle to watch a league in which they know players are doing irreparable harm to themselves on nearly every play.
Want fans to feel better about watching the NFL? Give us a reason to feel like we aren’t helping hasten our favorite players to an early grave. Better yet, give us reason to believe that all the money we dump into the league’s coffers is actually going to determine if the head injury issue is solvable. If it’s not, be straight with us. Come out and say that new rules make the game less hard-hitting but will help keep players from spending their final years in misery and pain. Prove to us that the players have all the information available and are making an informed choice to continue going out there every Sunday.
Knowing that football is, in the words of Hall of Famer Harry Carson, “a concussion delivery system” might be easier to take if it felt like the league took head trauma seriously. Or if Goodell acknowledged a strong link between football and CTE and announced what the league was doing about it. Or even if the officials were vigilant enough to catch and penalize helmet-to-helmet hits on a consistent basis. But with none of these mitigating circumstances on the horizon, the NFL becomes harder and harder to support, and the league has no one to blame but itself.
Just ask Cam Newton.